I can not tell you how long I have been waiting for this day. Well, actually, it’s been right at four months but who’s counting? In late April, Kyle Bradshaw uncovered a new project in the Chromium repository dubbed ‘lacros’. It wasn’t entirely clear at that point what Google was up to but signs pointed to a way that Chromebooks could continue to get updates beyond their scheduled end of life. More specifically, lacros is intended to update the Chrome browser on a Chromebook so that users could continue to browse the web without the concern of out of date security features.
Since the discovery of the project, I have regularly kept my Canary device with the ‘lacros’ flag enabled. In doing so, I constantly have a grey Chrome icon sitting on my Chromebook’s shelf. It just sits there. Clicking it does nothing. Right-clicking brings us the option to unpin the app or open a new window. The latter of which did nothing as well. That was, until today’s Canary update. After updating, the grey Chrome logo on my shelf turned yellow. It looks just like the logo for the Canary version of Chrome because, well, that’s exactly what it is.
I clicked the icon. (By the way, when you hover the icon, it is labeled LaCrOS but that will soon be updated to just Lacros without all the capital letters.) Much to my surprise and absolute joy, a new window opened up and I was staring at what looked like a dated version of Chrome for Windows setup screen. Check it out.
After I clicked OK, Chrome launched and I was prompted to set up the browser with my Google account just as you would on Windows or macOS. After logging in and setting up sync, I quickly checked to see if I could add a second user to Chrome like you can on the desktop version and sure enough, it worked like a charm. This is clearly not the same version of the Chrome browser that’s running in the Stable channel of Chrome OS. As a matter of fact, my normal Chrome app was still sitting there on the shelf and worked as expected. I now have two separate Chrome browsers running on my Chromebook without Linux or Android enabled.
I clicked into the settings menu of the Lacros version of Chrome to find it listed as Canary 87.0.4248.0. This happens to be the exact same version number from a recent build of Canary for Windows that was released on August 29th. I’m not exactly sure how the separate browser is being delivered but my guess is that it is using the new PluginVM project that is also being utilized for Parallels on Chrome OS.
Why it matters
I know what you’re thinking. What’s wrong with Chrome on Chrome OS? Well, the problem with the current version of the Chrome browser on a Chromebook is the fact that it ceases to get updates as soon as the device reaches its end of life. Lacros could be the answer to that. Google has been working to separate the browser and OS settings to create a distinct line between the two. Lacros would treat Chrome as its own application and therefore, allow it to update independently of the operating system. Now, it’s unclear if Lacros will eventually supplant the current Chrome OS browser. Another plausible scenario is that Lacros will be presented as an installation option when the Chromebook reaches EOL. This would allow users to continue using the device with minimal security risk but not putting the OEM on the hook for long-term support past the EOL date.
With Chromebooks now getting up to eight years of updates and now a new browser that could update for years beyond that, Chrome OS has just increased its value proposition exponentially. Think about it. Schools and institutions that have fleets of devices that are reaching the end of their lives can now continue using web-based platforms thanks to Lacros. The amount of money that it could save is astronomical. This is partially speculation at this point but we’ll be keeping a close eye on Lacros to see if we can unearth exactly what Google has planned for the project. Stay tuned.