It appears that this week Google has been granted a patent on something it has been hard at work on for a few years: desktop to tablet mode transition. Reported by Patently Mobile, this patent was actually filed for all the way back in October of 2016, a full year before the Pixelbook would be introduced to the world.
If you can remember back to that point, the Samsung Chromebook Plus and Pro had only just been confirmed a month prior right here at Chrome Unboxed and would not even show up on the scene for a few months after at CES 2017. Even when those devices debuted, true tablet mode on Chrome OS was still in its infancy, giving many users reasons to doubt the usefulness of the Samsung Chromebook Plus & Pro as thin, convertible, pen-toting laptops.
And, to an extent, those early days were pretty rough. Android was new, tablet mode was new, pen support was new and the whole thing just felt like a bit of a mess. Those of us that loved Chrome OS dealt with the quirks while the rest of the world thought we were all a bit crazy.
Fast forward just 3 short years and we’re still waiting on certain kinks to get fully ironed out in tablet mode, Google has left the tablet space, and we now have Linux apps alongside Android apps to work with in our mainly-convertible Chromebook landscape. It just moves fast around here!
With this new patent granted to Google this week, I can see where Patently Mobile could think this is pointing to a new, Microsoft Surface-like device from Google, but I don’t think this has anything to do with new hardware at all. Instead, this patent is 100% what Google put into motion 3 years ago as they were planning for the Pixelbook and Pixel Slate. If you want to take the time to read through the entire patent, you’ll read language that is descriptive of the exact desktop-to-tablet experience we have today on our Chromebooks. From the way overview mode is handled to full-screen apps popping into view at the moment you transition, Google has had a road map this whole time and they have executed it.
Looking through the illustrations, you’ll see a bit of the old-school Chrome OS desktop, but you’ll also see plenty of things that look just like the UI we use right now. It feels like looking back in time to see the future. I know I give Google grief a lot of times for just throwing a ton of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks, but this 3-year-old patent actually helps me see that where they’ve been headed all along with Chrome OS was actually part of a bigger plan…and it’s actually cool to see.
Why It Is Important
While I wish this patent was for some new, cool Pixelbook, the fact that it isn’t doesn’t really bother me, and I’ll explain why. First off, patents take years to win, so if we waited around for a patent to be granted before a new tech device could launch, we’d all be years behind what we have right now. When I see new patents granted for software-related things, it is rare that the patent is for something yet to be released. So that alone caused me to approach this patent win for Google with a different perspective: I wasn’t expecting a new device just because the title of an article said to.
More importantly, a patent win like this solidifies Google’s commitment to the Chrome OS platform, to the convertible & tablet form factors, and gives a bit of substance and weight to the unique work they’ve done on molding Chrome OS into what it is today. It is honestly easy to forget sometimes how good this UI is at deftly moving between tablet and laptop. While it isn’t perfect, no one does it better. Sure, iPad OS is a better tablet OS (for now) and some would argue Windows is more capable as a desktop OS, but neither one is anywhere close to as good as Chrome OS at juggling both sides of the coin.
And it is only getting better. Keep in mind that this patent was filed just three years ago. Three. In that time, Chrome OS has grown by leaps and bounds, and development isn’t slowing down. As a matter of fact, it feels like the Chromium Repositories are far busier than they’ve ever been adding features to the OS and fixing issues along the way. As more and more Chrome OS devices come online and more users flock to the OS, these features (both hardware and software) will continue to grow.
For Google, this patent win gives them some validation that what they’ve managed with Chrome OS’ desktop/tablet transition isn’t just a neat bar trick: it is fully unique and not being replicated by anyone else. I don’t know how much weight this will hold, but my hope is that it gives Google a bit of moxie in continuing to move the needle forward with Chromebooks in general. As the barriers to what you can and cannot do on a Chromebook continue to fall, Google needs to continue leveraging the things that Chrome OS is unique at doing. With this patent now firmly in their corner, it feels like Google is ready to smash the pedal on making sure the experience of using your Chromebook – whether in tablet mode on on the desktop – is a great one.
Lastly, I’m not sure how strong this patent will be at keeping others at bay, but imagine the leverage this patent gives Google in the laptop/convertible space if it holds any weight. The patent is basically outlining the way a Chromebook detects and transitions seamlessly between desktop and tablet mode. While we’ve all taken this for granted along the way, don’t forget how good Chromebooks have become at this rather daunting task. Right now I can pick up my Pixelbook, flip the screen back, and not worry one bit how the OS will respond. I can flip it back and forth from tablet to desktop and the experience is really effortless for me as the user. If Google now holds the patent on this experience, no one can copy what they’ve done to achieve it and their position as the best option for a tablet/desktop hybrid will only continue to grow.
Empowered by this, I can see Google making big strides in the last half of 2019 as we see a whole new fleet of convertibles, clamshells and tablets hit the market. As manufacturers and software developers alike become keen to the fact that Chrome OS is on a trajectory to being a true hybrid solution in the computing space, it really does feel like the sky is the limit. And I can’t wait to watch where it all goes.