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Google could make Chromebooks last years longer with a huge change to Chrome OS



“This device will no longer receive the latest software updates. Please consider updating”

I think you’ll agree with me when I say: it’s a punch in the stomach to start the day with this terrible message in the notification bar. You may have spent a lot of money to buy your Chromebook, and your Chromebook is already telling you that it won’t be updated anymore, leaving your device vulnerable to security exploits while you miss out on Chrome’s great new features. Thanks to an ambitious project known internally as Lacros, your upgrade woes may soon be a thing of the past.

Sound familiar? Device updates have been a significant problem on Android. In October 201

7, Android’s deployment rate was very bad – an embarrassing 0.2% of devices were running the latest version of the operating system. While Android fragmentation still plagues many devices today thanks to the complacency of OEMs, Google’s Project Treble is making a substantial difference in increasing Android adoption rate and further extending lifespan to older devices. Google now wants to do the same thing with Chromebooks and their answer is Lacros.

What is Lacros?

Lacros is an experimental initiative to separate the Chrome binary from the system UI (Ash, overview mode, shelf, etc.) on Chrome OS. To get started, the Chrome developers renamed the existing Chrome binary on Chrome OS to ash-chrome. They then took the Linux version of Chrome, renamed lacros-chrome, refined the Wayland support and architecture, and made it executable in Chrome OS. This allows Google to provide two separate binaries independently despite the version discrepancy. For example, Chrome OS can run on OS 87, but Chrome binary can be on version 89.

In short, think of Lacros Chrome as using Chrome on a traditional Linux desktop, but with much better Wayland support.

Test Lacros

I attempted to test this feature when it first arrived in developer channels as a Chrome flag in April, but it placed a persistent gray Chrome Canary icon in the app drawer that did nothing when I clicked on. it. I’ve been keeping an eye on it ever since, keeping the flag enabled and clicking on the icon whenever an update is released.

I recently managed to launch Lacros.

With the latest Chrome OS Canary channel update, let’s take our first look at the Lacros Chrome browser running on Chrome OS. Check it out here:

lacros_in_action

A first look at the experimental chromed Lacros. It works … for the most part.

As you can see, Lacros Chrome works and behaves like a normal Chrome browser installed on a traditional operating system. There are certainly some things Google needs to work on to make the experience more refined, like the weird white lightning bolt, the random penguin icon on the shelf, and slow performance. But Lacros is still early in its development, so that’s to be expected.

Because this is significant

So having two different instances of Chrome running side by side is nice and all, but you may be wondering why this is so important. To answer this question, we first need to look at how Google updates Chrome OS.

Currently, Chrome is deeply intertwined with Chrome OS, which means that Google has to compile and ship a monolithic package to the update channels. While this isn’t a problem in itself, the main problem lies when a Chromebook reaches AUE, or end of life. Just like on an Android phone, when your Chromebook reaches AUE, you miss out on new Chrome OS updates. Missing a Chrome OS update also means that Chrome itself won’t be updated, which leaves the browser outdated, vulnerable, and unable to take advantage of the updated platforms on the web.

Lacros could be Google’s answer to this. Since this Chrome binary is distributed separately from the Chrome OS, Google can easily update the Chrome binary regardless of the operating system. This means that even if your Chromebook reaches AUE, your browser will at least receive the latest and greatest features, and most importantly, security fixes from Google. If you think about it, this could have a huge positive impact in the educational space. Schools are buying huge numbers of old Chromebooks for students, especially now with many classrooms going virtual during the global pandemic. Thanks to Lacros, school Chromebooks that have reached AUE could continue to receive Chrome updates so that students can continue to use their web-based platforms. Institutions should no longer purchase another set of newer Chromebooks and updated, potentially saving a very significant amount of money.

It is not clear exactly what path Google will take with Lacros. For example, there is no information on how Lacros will be deployed on Chrome OS once this feature is implemented on the Stable channel. I imagine Google would configure Chrome OS to require users to install Lacros once their Chromebook reaches AUE, but I’m not sure. Lacros is shaping up to be an exciting project, and I’m thrilled to see Google looking to extend the life of Chromebooks even further.


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