First things first: I am fully-aware that Chrome OS is built on the Linux kernel and that the title of this article is a bit of a misnomer. If you are checking this article out, however, you likely already know this as well and realize I needed a title that quickly got the point across that I feel Crouton is an important piece of the puzzle for the continued growth of Chrome OS as a platform.
Now, let me explain why.
10 years ago, when Android was a fledgling OS, it lacked many of the features users wanted and sometimes needed. It was missing some of the security and technical abilities of Windows Mobile and Blackberry OS while also lacking the polish that iOS was already attaining at the time.
Android needed all sorts of things, so carriers and manufacturers were quick to swoop in and add needed elements to the underlying OS. This did many things, but mainly gave companies easy ways to create differentiation in their products while slowly building up the overall Android ecosystem as a whole.
The other thing that helped Android grow? Rooting.
Put plainly, rooting is the process by which a user gains root access to the OS and procures the ability to make system-level changes. Usually this meant obtaining the ability to flash custom ROMs that other’s had created.
The practice is still alive and kicking today, but the general user finds less and less need to go through this process as Android grows and develops.
I’m one of those users who, once upon a time rooted every phone I had in order to add the needed features that were left out or removed by carriers and manufacturers.
Back then, picking a phone was equal parts new features, build quality, ease of root access, and selection of custom ROMs available.
These days I find it has been a long time since I found the need to go to the trouble of rooting at all. I find stock Android fills my needs, so I have little reason to mess with all the work needed to gain root access and install a custom OS.
What’s This Have To Do With Chromebooks?
In a similar fashion, Chromebooks have a dev mode that can be accessed that gives users the ability to enter a shell in the Chrome OS terminal and do a lot of cool, extra-curricular things.
Crouton is one of the primary scripts that dev mode and crosh (the Chrome OS Developer Shell) allow users to run. This script allows the installation of multiple distributions of Ubuntu Linux to be installed right alongside Chrome OS on your Chromebook. We have a whole walk-through tutorial if you are interested in doing this.
Additionally, many people set up partitions and dual-boot other distributions of Linux right on their Chromebook.
The doors that open with these methods feel quite endless and rife with possibility, but they aren’t for everyone to step through.
Getting into Linux installations requires some research, time, and effort. It also requires a desire to learn a few things and fail here and there, powerwash your Chromebook a few times, and generally wade out into unverified waters from time to time.
It isn’t for everyone.
All of this does, however, give advanced Chromebook fans a way to expand the current computing environment to meet their needs until more functionality shows up.
For me, my biggest needs used to be a reliable IDE, FTP manager, and vector editor. There weren’t options in Chrome OS, but I was determined to keep using a Chromebook.
Using Crouton, I could install Filezilla, a simple IDE (can’t remember what I used back then), and Inkscape for graphic editing.
Once I had those tools on my Chromebook, I was able to fully ditch Windows and become a full-time Chromebook user. For others, perhaps a video editor like Lightworks or a Photoshop replacement like GIMP is in order. Regardless of the app, the point is Crouton and Ubuntu Linux allowed me to go all-in on a Chromebook before Chrome OS was really ready for me.
Things Are Different Now
Fast-forward to today and I rarely use Crouton. The Pixelbook I’m typing on right now isn’t even in Dev mode, and I don’t need it to be. I use Gravit Designer (which I’m prepping a review on) for all my graphic work, ShiftEdit as my IDE/FTP client, and Android apps are filling the gaming void.
I don’t need other Linux distros any longer. Chrome OS allows me to do my jobs effectively and efficinently.
It just wasn’t always the case for me, and still isn’t for many.
Just like the earlier years for Android, rooting wasn’t just a hobby: it was a bit of a necessity for things like wireless tethering or the ability to have a near-stock Android experience.
Crouton and/or dual-boot setups are still necessary for more advanced users wanting and hoping to make Chrome OS their daily driver. I have a few people I work with in my day job that really want to jump ship and become Chromebook users, but they have an app or two holding them back. As I’m writing this, I’m researching some tools that could work in the Ubuntu environment that may help bridge the gap for them if they choose to make that leap.
Until Chrome OS grows up a bit more, there will always be those who cannot come along for the ride due to a handful of missing features, services, or apps. If there is a tool to bridge that gap for those unafraid to step out, then that tool needs to remain a base feature for the community of users.
I write all this to say that we will continue to outline ways that Chromebook users can get more done, even if it in the context of Crouton and other more advanced ways. When we talk about app development on Chromebooks, installing Linux apps, or running Steam, we aren’t just making things up.
These things are all legitimately possible on a Chromebook because of the Linux underpinnings of the OS. Sure, they are hack-y, but they are doable and expand the ability of your Chromebook in ways that Chrome OS just can’t for now.
Who knows? In a few more years, perhaps even power users won’t have as much need for things like Crouton. Perhaps it will become more of a tinkerer’s tool to simply mess around.
For now, though, Crouton and tools like it are essential for Chrome OS’ more advanced users, and here at Chrome Unboxed, we are just fine with that.