If you’ve been a part of the Chromebook story for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard about the three pillars of the core Chrome OS experience: speed, simplicity, and security. From the jump, Google had a vision of computing that put these three things front and center, allowing them to steer the ship and correct course when needed as Chrome OS has undergone 89 6-week updates to this point. Have they always executed things perfectly? Of course not, but they have done a great job at letting those three pillars drive ongoing changes to an ever-expanding operating system that has become far more capable than it was 10 years ago at launch.
As we all know from life experience, the more capability you add to anything, the more mess and complexity follows. It’s the same with software and hardware: the more features, settings, and abilities our Chromebooks gain, the more prone they become to getting bogged down by all the complexity that is necessary with all the added benefits. Take Discord for an example. If you’ve not used it, I highly recommend it as a chat app and productivity tool for teams or groups. We use it for internal communication and for our Patreon community and I love it. However, when it’s time to set up a new room, new rule or new role for a user, you quickly notice that Discord has gained a boatload of features and abilities over time that have come at the cost of simplicity. It is wildly full-featured and the UI sometimes gets lost in the weeds of all that ability.
I’d say that we’re approaching that reality with Chrome OS as more new abilities show up. Some would argue that the moment Android apps showed up, we already arrived there. Chrome OS purists (I’m that way myself some days) love the speed, simplicity, and security offered up by an OS that was started as nothing but a web browser. There’s a lot to be said of the lightweight/speedy nature of web apps, the security of not having much technically installed and the simplicity of a computer that just gets the job done and gets out of the way.
But I also have to relent on that purism and admit that many times an Android app has stepped in and filled a gap in the Chrome OS experience. The inherent security is still in place and while not as light as their web-based counterparts, the speed is still pretty great, too. Google has managed to include Android in the equation without sacrificing two of the initial pillars of Chrome OS (speed and security), but I don’t know that we can say the same about simplicity. With many Android apps not working well, confusion over which app is Android vs. PWA, differing app stores and other small irritations, Android apps on Chromebooks don’t exactly feel simple, do they?
And now we have the Linux container that is secure and runs well, but again just misses when we talk about simplicity on Chrome OS. To be fair, Linux is aimed at developers and not the general public, but it still adds a layer of complexity that simply didn’t used to exist. We also have Parallels and their Windows container for running Windows apps on Chromebooks and, again, while this is still secured and reasonable speedy, it is far from simple. Then add in the ‘Borealis’ container that will house a custom Steam gaming setup and the story is much the same. We’re keeping speed and security right up front, but simplicity feels like it is taking a back seat to handle all the growing complexity. And we haven’t even started in on all the new, native Chrome OS features like phone hub.
There’s good news for Chromebook simplicity
Looking at things from this perspective, it can feel a bit like we’re losing the simple, streamlined Chromebook experience we’ve all loved up to this point. It can feel like Google is losing its way. I get it, but if I’m honest, I don’t really think about this growing complexity that often because I love seeing Chromebooks grow into more full-fledged tools. However, I know many of you out there are desperate to keep things clean and simple, and I do understand that, too. But there’s really good news for all of us as Chromebook users that is pretty unique to Chrome OS and a fairly special trait of these computing devices. You can just turn it all off.
That’s right! As Chromebooks keep expanding their abilities via customized containers, you can simply opt out of the entire thing and just keep running Chrome OS just like you always have. You don’t have to use Android, Linux, Windows, Steam or any other container that comes along. Chrome OS allows you – the user – to decide what parts of this new complexity to take advantage of or simply leave on the side of the road. It’s up to you how much of this new ability you want, and that’s a really refreshing take on an operating system. If you don’t want Android apps, just open up your settings, head to Apps > Google Play Store > Remove Google Play Store and you can make it simply disappear. Don’t want Windows, Linux or Steam? No worries! Just don’t turn them on.
For me, I leave Android apps on, I skip Linux most days, I’ve long moved on from the need of and Windows applications, and I’m very much looking forward to ‘Borealis’, Steam games, and Tiger Lake Chromebooks that will run them well. Do these additions make things a tad less simple? Sure. But I’m fully aware that I can simply turn it all off if I choose, and you can too. Even some of the more elaborate new features like Phone Hub can simply be skipped if you’d rather not mess with it, and that’s a beautiful thing. Chrome OS is growing and it is growing fast. More custom containers will come, more abilities will be added, but as long as Google continues to let us all decide which ones we use and which ones we skip, the promise of simplicity is always there and it’s one of my favorite parts of using a Chromebook.