CloudReady on old Lenovo laptop

The future of Chrome OS on old desktop PCs and laptops

Google has quietly made an investment that has the potential to have a big impact on the future of Chrome OS. The search engine giant was lead investor in the latest fundraising round from Neverware, the company behind the CloudReady operating system. It is an investment which could have a big impact on the future of Chrome OS.

The first Chromebook went on sale in 2011. Since launch the devices have found a loyal following of home users, and established a very strong position within the education sector in the United States. Powered by the cloud-based Chrome OS and providing a big departure from traditional desktop-class OSs, the platform has attracted a fair number of sceptics. But despite many predicting its demise right from the start, the operating system has grown steadily and appears to be here to stay.

Like Chrome OS, CloudReady is based on Google’s open source Chromium project. The two OSs unsurprisingly have a lot in common, offering large visual similarities. But while they might be hard to tell apart, Chrome OS and CloudReady have followed very different paths. The biggest factor that separates the two is distribution. While Chrome OS is shipped on dedicated hardware (mainly Chromebooks), CloudReady is offered for download and can be installed on a wide variety of machines.

Although Chrome OS is available on a number of entry-level devices, the hardware is relatively tightly controlled. By setting specific requirements for manufacturers, Google has helped to ensure that affordable devices are available with features like 5 GHz wi-fi. These low-cost laptops have also consistently featured higher-quality keyboards and trackpads than are available on similarly-priced Windows machines.

Many Chromebooks are powered by the same Intel processors that ship in Windows laptops. But despite the hardware equivalency, Google has not tried to persuade Windows users to install Chrome OS on their devices. There is no general purpose Chrome OS distribution available for download – anyone wanting to run the OS has to buy a dedicated device.

Offering Chrome OS for download could potentially increase market share, but would also result in significant compromises. A much wider range of hardware would need to be supported, utilising resources that could be better spent elsewhere. And no matter how much effort is put into increasing hardware compatibility, inevitably some users will end up with an experience that has not been optimised for their machine. Someone who tests Chrome OS only to find their graphics card is not fully support would be left with a bad impression.

There has been no shortage of attempts to persuade Windows users to install alternative OSs, none of which have achieved a mainstream breakthrough. Google is well aware of the challenges it would face for potentially little pay-off, were it to offer Chrome OS for download.

This all serves to paint a fairly negative picture of Chrome OS’ prospects away from non-dedicated hardware. On the surface, Google’s investment in Neverware looks a little out-of-place. After all, the search engine giant is relatively conservative when it comes to financing new ventures. Google has led investment in just three other companies so far during 2017.

So why the interest in Neverware – a company pursuing a strategy that Google rejected? To answer this question, it is first necessary to understand what Neverware offers. There are four core editions of CloudReady, targeting VDIs, home computing, the education sector and enterprise. It would be easy to assume that Google is interested in virtualisation, given that there is no edition of Chrome OS available for VDIs. But in reality, Google is likely interested in the overlaps, even though it already targets the home, education and enterprise markets itself.

Neverware promises a reliable, supported and affordable OS for older machines. CloudReady is a long way from being the first alternative OS targeted at aging hardware. But there are reasons to believe that CloudReady stands a better chance of success than previous attempts to revitalise well-used desktop PCs and laptops. In 2017 cloud-based services are more relevant than ever, and this is an area that will only increase in importance. Neverware’s pricing is very competitive too, providing an attractive proposition for organisations looking for a device management solution.

If a company is going to succeed in distributing a Chrome OS-like system for non-dedicated hardware, then Google does not want to end up on the outside. The Chromium project is now an integral part of Google. In many respects, Neverware have forced the Mountain View-based company to look at a route to market they initially eschewed.

The situation does, however, offer some real opportunities for Google. By partnering with Neverware, Google is able to take a very different distribution approach with a Chromium-based OS, without risking damage to Chrome OS itself. If successful, there is the potential to challenge Microsoft in areas Google did not envisage as being successful. And if CloudReady’s initial traction fails to bear fruit, the cost of failure is low.

In the medium term, if CloudReady starts to make an impact it is easy to imagine Neverware becoming an acquisition target for Google. For the time being, though, there will be a clear separation between Chrome OS and CloudReady. In terms of user experience, the biggest difference will be a lack of Android apps for Neverware’s OS. Although should CloudReady gain a significant install base, the line that separates it from Chrome OS is likely to blur.