Google Is Trying To Separate Chrome From Chrome OS

Google is trying to separate Chrome from Chrome OS

I guess it’s hard to hear that you may have spent a lot of money buying your Chromebook, and your Chromebook is already telling you that it will not be updated anymore, which means that your device is vulnerable to security exploits while missing out on cool new Chrome features. Thanks to a project named Lacros, your update problems may soon be a thing of the past.

Sounds familiar? Updates of devices have been a significant problem on Android. Back in October 2017, Android’s distribution rate was abysmal — an embarrassing 0.2% of devices were running the latest version of the OS. While Android fragmentation still plagues many devices today thanks to OEM complacency Google’s Project Treble is making an essential difference in increasing the Android adoption rate and further extending the service life to older devices. Now, Google wants to do the same thing to Chromebooks, and its decision is Lacros.

What is Lacros?

Lacros is a pilot project to separate the Chrome binary from the System UI (Ash, Overview Mode, Shelf, etc.) on Chrome OS.  To start, Chrome’s developers renamed the existing Chrome binary on Chrome OS to ash-chrome. Then they took the Linux version of Chrome, renamed it to lacros-chrome, refined its Wayland support and architecture, and made it working in Chrome OS. This allows Google to ship two separate binaries independently despite the version discrepancy. For example, Chrome OS can be running on OS 87, but the Chrome binary can be on version 89.

In brief, consider Lacros Chrome as using Chrome on a traditional Linux desktop, but with far better Wayland support.

Testing Lacros

People tried to test this feature when it first appeared in the developer channels as a Chrome flag back in April, but it put a persistent gray Chrome Canary icon on the App drawer that did nothing when they clicked on it. They have since kept an eye on it — keeping the flag enabled and clicking on the icon whenever an update drops. Lately, they managed to launch Lacros.

With the most recent Chrome OS Canary channel update, we have our first look at the Lacros Chrome browser running in Chrome OS. Take a look at it here:

As you can see, Lacros Chrome functions and works like a normal Chrome browser installed on a traditional operating system. There are definitely a few things Google needs to work on to make the experience more clean, like the weird white flash, random penguin icon on the Shelf, and sluggish performance. But Lacros is still at an early stage in its development, so these things are to be expected.

Why this is significant?

Thus,having two different examples of Chrome running side by side is goos, but you might be wondering why this is so important. To answer that question, we have to first look at the way Google updates Chrome OS.

At the present time, Chrome is closely related with Chrome OS, meaning Google has to compile and ship one monolithic package to the update channels. While that isn’t a problem in itself, the major problem lies when a Chromebook hits AUE, or end of life. Just like on an Android phone, when your Chromebook hits AUE, you lose out on new Chrome OS updates. Losing out on a Chrome OS update also means that Chrome itself won’t get updated either, which leaves the browser outdated, vulnerable, and unable to take advantage of updated platforms on the web.

Lacros could be Google’s solution to this. Since this Chrome binary is distributed separately from Chrome OS, Google can easily update the Chrome binary independently from the operating system. That means even if your Chromebook hits AUE, your browser will at least get the latest and greatest features — and critically, security fixes — from Google. If you think about it, this could have a huge positive impact in the educational sphere. Schools are buying great numbers of older Chromebooks for students to use, especially now with many classes going virtual during the global pandemic. Thanks to Lacros, school Chromebooks that hit AUE could continue to receive Chrome updates so students can continue using their web-based platforms. Institutions would not have to buy another set of updated Chromebooks, potentially saving a considerably large amount of money.

It’s uncertain exactly what path Google will take with Lacros. For instance, there is no information on how Lacros will deploy on Chrome OS once they roll out this feature to the Stable channel. I guess Google would set up Chrome OS to prompt users to install Lacros once their Chromebook hits AUE. Lacros is turning into an exciting project, and I’m excited to see Google trying to further extend the lifespan of Chromebooks.

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