The Pixelbook is a Missed Opportunity for Chrome OS

Google recently introduced the Pixelbook, their flagship Chromebook. As a flagship, its main function is not to sell the most, whether in units or revenue, but to show the world what Chromebooks are capable of [0].

Compared to other similar hardware in its form factor and $1000 price range, which are Windows and Mac laptops, the Pixelbook is severely limited by its OS [1]. You can’t do things on them that you can on a Mac or Windows laptop. This is, of course, a limitation we all know, and what makes it a Chromebook to begin with. But the least such a device can do is not be limited in other ways as well. Because, if you start with a $1000 laptop that only shows web pages, and you then add another limitations, it becomes a hard sell.

But before we discuss what limitations the Pixelbook suffers from that weren’t necessary, let’s recognise the positives, the things Google did to compensate for ChromeOS’s limited power.

First, Chromebooks come with 100GB of free cloud storage. A cloud-based device needs cloud storage for it to be a powerful tool. Fortunately, Google delivers.

Second, the Pixelbook comes with sufficient memory — 8GB— to keep many tabs in memory at once. And enough SSD space—128GB—so that you can copy plenty of films, TV serials or music videos to it. That makes it useful offline, or in a room with poor Wifi reception, or with a slow Internet connection (like 4 mbps) with a low data cap (like 50GB). Or when your Internet connection fails, which happens regularly for me.

So, plenty of memory, local storage and cloud storage ameliorate some of Chrome OS’s limitations. What other limitations does the Pixelbook have that could have been ameliorated but weren’t? What opportunities did Google miss?

First, Google should’ve made Android apps ready. One review says eloquently:

It’s hard to justify the purchase of a $1,000 laptop that can only display web pages and run unimpressive Android phone apps. You can’t really use the Pixelbook for the kind of things that typically justify a $1,000+ price tag, like gaming, photo processing, development, or video. Chrome OS defenders can come up with some janky web or Android apps that roughly emulate some of these use cases, but none of them are the kind of industry-defining programs you get on other platforms. This is the third generation of these premium Chrome OS flagships, though, so Google must be happy with the presumably low-volume sales of a device like this. If you liked the other Chromebook Pixels, you’ll like this one, but nothing here closes the gap between Chrome OS and other laptop OSes.

Ideally, Android apps on Chromebooks would be occupying a middle ground between limited mobile apps and powerful PC apps. But that hasn’t happened [2].

Google is, as usual, uncoordinated and uncommitted. They announce and work on tons of things, but without putting their weight behind most, like Apple does [3].

Google should practice what they preach and bring Android Studio to the Pixelbook, or Chromebooks in general. Not as an afterthought or an experiment or a beta, but as a first-tier supported platform. The Android Studio team should be told that from now on, Chromebooks are at least as important a platform as Windows, Mac or Linux. Maybe even instead of Windows, Mac and Linux, just as Apple supports iOS development only on macOS, if that frees up resources and focuses attention on Chromebooks.

Developers are an important demographic. Apple says they are the biggest segment of Macbook Pro users, which means they spend a lot of money. And they’re a demographic underserved by Chromebooks today. Not only will making Android Studio for Chromebooks make developers seriously consider Chromebooks, but it will send a signal to the wider market that the Pixelbook can do things that until now, only real computers could do. It’s important for a device to be able to build apps for itself, rather than needing a real computer to take care of it. That makes it a first-tier, rather than a second-tier device, in its capabilities.

It’s not just Android Studio. Google could bring Eclipse and other tools to the Chromebook so that people can build Javascript or Java apps for other platforms.

It’s not just development tools. Other Google apps like Android File Transfer or the Google Photos uploader should be brought to Chromebooks. Or integrated into ChromeOS, so that it’s as easy to manage a connected Android phone’s storage or upload photos from an SD card to Google Photos on a Chromebook as it is on Windows or Mac.

In addition to practising what it preaches, Google should’ve given Pixelbook buyers a $300 credit to buy apps, whether Android or web apps.This has two advantages: first, spending $1000 becomes easier to justify if you get $300 back. Second, it will jumpstart the ecosystem. Otherwise, developers won’t invest because there are insufficient users, the market is unproven, and the technology is unproven. And users won’t buy the Pixelbook because it can’t do much. The quickest way out of the catch-22 problem is to throw money at it [4].

Second, the Pixelbook could’ve had a detachable keyboard, so that it can work as a tablet. A Chromebook would be an easier purchase to justify if it worked as a tablet in addition to as a laptop. Or, perhaps, there can be two models of the Pixelbook, one convertible, and one detachable.

Third, the Pixelbook’s screen should’ve supported wide color, either Display P3 or Adobe RGB. It’s vibrant and rich, particularly in UI chrome like buttons.

Fourth, the Pixelbook should’ve had its pen included, rather than be a separate $100 purchase. This will make it more useful to artists, illustrators and other creative types, making it more powerful than Macbook Pros in some ways. That would be a strong statement to make for a Chromebook. It’s not just creative types, but also casual users who might benefit from the pen. A separate $100 purchase means that most people won’t buy it, making the Chromebook more limited. No one expects a pen included with a $400 Chromebook, but it certainly should be with a $1000 Chromebook. Omitting it is like selling a $700 phone without included earphones.

Fifth, the Pixelbook should’ve had biometric authentication, either a fingerprint reader or webcam-based, like Windows Hello. Now that both Windows and macOS support biometric authentication, Chromebooks are left behind, inconvenient to unlock and less secure.

Sixth, the Pixelbook should’ve had at least four USB-C ports, so that you can conveniently plug in more peripherals. Say a keyboard, mouse and monitor, leaving a fourth port for charging [5]. There should’ve been an SD card slot for photographers [6].

Again, the common thread among most of these points is that the Pixelbook is already limited compared to a Mac or Windows laptop because it runs ChromeOS. It cannot afford to be limited in other ways too, because then it becomes hard to justify its purchase.

I really wish Google commits to ChromeOS and does what it needs to do to make it a first-tier platform, so that most of us can use it instead of Mac or Windows.

[0] There’s an argument to be made that the Pixelbook should’ve been cheaper, say $799. Cut some corners. For example, use cheaper materials. Start at 64GB storage, until a need is proven for more. Reduce the screen resolution from 2400x1600 to 1080p. Since 1080p is a standard resolution, panels will be cheaper. A 3:2 higher-resolution screen is great to have, but does nothing to convince anyone of Chrome OS’s value. So don’t spend money on that.

The Pixelbook’s job is to illustrate what Chrome OS can do, so cut out things that don’t serve that purpose, even if they’re nice to have. Besides, the Pixelbook won’t be able to convince people that Chrome OS is a useful platform if it doesn’t sell, and remains a museum piece.

[1] Though more useful than iPads, even iPad “Pros” running iOS 11. If you were to offer to exchange my 13-inch iPad Pro for a Pixelbook, and charge me the difference in price, I’d gladly take you up on your offer.

[2] Just as iPad Pro apps are still mobile apps, not PC-class ones like Xcode, Eclipse, Lightroom or Photoshop.

[3] Which isn’t to say that Apple commits to everything they do, just that they’re better than Google in this regard.

[4] This credit be redeemable only on a Chromebook, not on an Android phone or other device.

Google can monitor how the money is being spent, and impose limits if, say, all of it is being spent on games, assuming Google wants the Pixelbook to be more than a gaming machine. Or, instead of a $300 credit, give a $100 credit for Business apps, another $100 for Photography apps and a final $100 for Productivity apps.

Another option is for Google to identify the few PC-class apps that have already been built for Chromebooks, and offer the developers some money to make the app free for everyone for a year and/or to open-source it.

These could be new apps that haven’t yet become popular, or popular ones like Evernote: if Google feels that Evernote would make the Chromebook more powerful, they might give Evernote money to make all features of Evernote free for Chromebook users, which otherwise costs $120 a year. These features need not be available on other platforms like Android phones, iOS or PC, or the web when accessed from those devices.

In addition to making existing apps available to Chrome OS users, Google can fund development of new ones. Identify a gap that’s important to many Chrome OS users, say PDF editors, and then announce that this year, Google will guarantee that, in the next one year, all PDF editor apps on Chromebook will make a combined revenue of at least $1 million, say. If they don’t, Google will make up the shortfall out of their own pocket. Google can ask for something in return, like making the app free for all Chromebook users for the next year, or open-sourcing it, or they could just give the money with no strings attached.

There are many ways to fund development of PC-class apps, but sitting back and waiting for it to happen, as Google seems to be doing, is not one of them.

[5] I want 6–8 ports, but I’ll settle for 4. I don’t need all of them to have 5 Gbps bandwidth, let alone 10 or 40. Most will be used for peripherals. It would be fine if the first two ports you plug high-bandwidth devices like monitors or external SSDs into get high bandwidth, and the remaining get low, like 300 Mbps.

[6] Or, if it doesn’t fit in the available thickness, a micro SD slot, if it does. That’s better than nothing.