Some Thoughts on the Chrome OS News…

Imagine for a moment that you are the developer of an operating system for mobile devices. While you may not be the first operating system on the market, you gain instant acceptance from consumers because you offer your operating system for no cost, and you generate your income from the advertising on that operating system. Hardware developers love your product because they don't need to pay you to use your operating system.

Then imagine that your competitor introduces a new (or new-again) form factor, a tablet. As a reaction, you introduce your own tablet. Your competitor's device becomes a favorite device in schools, but your tablet does not. As a result you scrap your plans for your tablet to be the answer in education, and you develop an entirely new platform that will work well in schools.

Then, imagine that over a few years, your device begins winning in the field of education, and you are selling more of your “new” platform than your competitor's tablet. Your device is inexpensive (less than half the price of your competitor's product), offers a secure environment that can be centrally controlled, and comes with a productivity suite that meets many of the needs for education.

What would you do at that point? What would be your next move?

I am, of course, talking about Google and the Chromebook. Two days ago, several media outlets reported that Google will merge Chrome OS (i.e. Chromebooks) into Android by early 2017. Google has responded by saying that they are committed to Chrome OS, but not denying the overall news. In other words, “We are committed to Chrome OS until our new OS is ready.”

Google and the manufacturers who made Chromebooks have sold millions of these devices to schools over the past three years. There are a number of schools that have ditched their iPads to move to Chromebooks. We have heard repeatedly that the cost of the devices, the keyboard, the security, the central control, and the simplicity of the web apps have been PERFECT for education.

While Android devices come in many shapes, sizes, and price points, they have not been very good in terms of “productivity,” and while key apps are available on both iOS and Android, Android lacks a lot apps and features a majority of ad supported or freemium apps. One of the challenges of being involved in an iPad 1:1 is the App Store. It seems there is no happy medium–either you restrict it completely or students will misuse apps during education. The Chromebook web app store was really limited–what happens when you open the floodgates to all the apps on the market?

And “control” is a tricky word with Chromebooks. There is really no way for a teacher to control student Chromebooks (there is such a solution with iPads). All of the control is on the side of the IT department, specifically with the control of Google GAFE accounts and rollout of devices. Apple has made huge improvements in this process over the years, combined with MDMs like Casper.

And as the Android App Store is only lightly curated–there are plenty of apps with viruses and malicious activity–something uncommon with Chromebook web apps and iOS devices.

It will be fun to see the people who once lauded the benefits of the limited Chromebooks to change their tune and embrace the challenges of an Androidbook.

Also not clear: Will “old” Chromebooks get the new operating system, or will they be left in the dust?

If Android hardware is any example, there will be tough days ahead. Android apologists hate the discussion of fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs when you change your OS enough that older versions of the operating system cannot run apps that have been tweaked for the new versions of the operating system. Some developers will find solutions, but most developers simply move to the SDK. Since the early days of Android, Google has released new versions of its operating system that the manufacturers have refused to update for old devices. This means that, at any time, you can buy a new device that is running old hardware (right now, you can buy Kit Kat Android devices, Lollipop Android Devices, and Marshmallow Android Devices). You might even be able to buy new devices with even older Android operating systems. There is even a support group (and hacking developers) that try to make current operating systems run on old hardware.

Yes, this happens to Apple, too, generally when the hardware can no longer support the new operating system. As for iOS 9, however, it runs on iPads as old as iPad 2, and phones as old as the iPhone 4S. If you have that device (or newer), the only reason you would not have iOS 9 is because you chose not to install it.

So…do you think your 2014 Dell will get the 2017 Android OS? And will your central IT manager be able to control all the devices with one console?

Yeah…some scary times lie ahead. I wish some other people were out there recognizing this.

If you were the director of an IT department, and you had a budget to spend on technology for the 2016-2017 school year, knowing that a new operating system will be coming, would you spend another dime on Chromebooks at this time?

As I referred to earlier in this post, Android attempted to make it as a tablet format in schools. Android is a touch based operating system, whereas Chrome OS is a keyboard based operating system. As one writer put it, Android has been terrible in the area of productivity, while Chromebooks have been terrible in the area of applications and touch-based computing.

Is there any reason to think that Google will get it right? Particularly from day 1?

The funny thing is that I predicted the possibility of a Chrome OS and Android OS merger years ago. With the success of the Chromebook in education, I simply came to believe that Google would stand behind Chrome OS.

I suppose that's the danger of going with a company that doesn't sell hardware. If the company has no reason to continue the support for an old device, it will simply abandon them from time to time. Google has done that a lot over the years. There is no doubt that Google offer some wonderful products. But at the same time they have orphaned a number of them along the way as well.

With this announcement, Google also makes a point that native apps are a better solution than web apps. Surprisingly, Apple made this same journey, but realized it much faster (the first iPhone only ran web apps–often on 2G cell service!).

In the business of music education, companies have been scrambling to find answers for the Chromebook. In Nashville, I talked with a company that was resisting the development for Chromebooks, because they felt that many students were not allowed to take them home due to their fragile nature. I have been trying to validate that claim, but it looks like most schools allow students (particularly at the secondary level) to take Chromebooks home.

Regardless, the philosophy from that company is to provide software on mobile devices that run native apps–mobile devices that are already in the pockets of students and parents.

That didn't look like a good strategy at just a week ago, and now that company now looks brilliant. This also makes me think about the companies that have invested in (bought) other companies to provide experiences on Chromebooks–those investments suddenly look very bad–all because Google is making sudden shifts in their business practice.

It is going to be interesting to see how this all pans out. I knew something would happen when a vice president of Google was given authority over both Chrome OS and Android. I should have realized that the move did not mean that Chome would get more features, but that Android would absorb the best features of Chrome.

From a musician's standpoint, and as a person that owns devices that run all major operating systems, Android still leaves a lot to be desired for music education. This includes apps, MIDI integration, and many more things. It is true that the new HTML 5 programs that are music friendly, such as Noteflight and, will work on nearly any device. But I would also expect to see new native apps to run on the new Androidbooks. Even if developers jump into the new Android unified OS, schools will still struggle to find money to provide web apps, web services, and native apps for music education.

This is all early news that has been verified, but it is unclear how Google will handle everything in the days to come. 2017 is not that far away–for Google or for schools (most schools know budgets and line-items for the following academic year no later March). I am not sure I would want to be an IT director investing in devices that have an uncertain future. While I have been fond of saying, “Buy a device for what it can do today, not what it might do tomorrow,” that quote assumes that there is a “tomorrow” for your device!