Reading coverage of Google’s newly announced Pixel Slate — the two-in-one device that’s both an Android-like tablet and Surface-like Chromebook — the clear and consistent theme you see is that Google just dramatically changed course with its computing vision.
I’ve lost count of the number of tweets, analyses, and hands-on assessments I’ve come across expressing that sentiment — that the Pixel Slate represents a whole new beginning for Chrome OS in terms of both its Android-reminiscent interface and its positioning as a best-of-both-worlds tablet platform.
The reality, of course, couldn’t be more different. As I mused in my most recent newsletter, the Pixel Slate doesn’t truly introduce anything new on a conceptual level. The entire Play Store of Android apps has been accessible on Chromebooks for almost two years now, and Google has been making the Chrome OS interface increasingly Android-like and touch-friendly for even longer than that — albeit often in subtle-seeming and easily overlooked ways.
[Get fresh tips and insight in your inbox every Friday with JR’s Android Intelligence newsletter. Exclusive extras await!]
Then came last October, when the company gave Chrome OS an app launcher and on-screen navigation system with more than passing resemblances to their Android-based equivalents. It was that crowning progression that led me to declare that the Chromebook was effectively the new Android tablet — and that Google’s pivot to its younger platform as the primary focus for larger-than-phone computing was all but complete.
That same month, of course, Google’s high-end Pixelbook came along and served as a flagship-worthy home for that new multiform-ready software. It, along with other convertible Chromebooks, offered a Chrome OS experience that was essentially a new, improved, and infinitely more versatile version of the traditional Android tablet experience from the past.
The further-refined and even more Android-reminiscent interface we’re seeing today, meanwhile — with its Pixel-like combined Quick Settings and notification panel, its rounded on-screen elements, and its shortcut-filled and gesture-driven tablet home screen — has been in public view since this past summer.
The Pixel Slate is an alternate configuration of what already existed
Now, don’t get me wrong: The Pixel Slate is absolutely an important new product for Google. It’s the company’s first self-made tablet-first device, created quite clearly to compete with the Surface- and iPad-like model of having a high-end tablet that can also turn into a laptop by way of a thin but well-made keyboard attachment. Compare that to the Pixelbook, which has the same software setup and general experience but tends to be positioned as a laptop first, and it’s apparent that what the Pixel Slate ultimately adds into the equation isn’t a wholly new concept but rather an alternate configuration of what already existed.
[ Take this mobile device management course from PluralSight and learn how to secure devices in your company without degrading the user experience. ]
Whereas the Pixelbook is a laptop that swivels around to become a tablet, the Pixel Slate is a tablet that clicks onto an attachment to become a laptop. Each arrangement has its own set of advantages and drawbacks — basically boiling down to a matter of personal preference — but at their core, they’re really just moderately different takes on the same basic idea.
The Pixel Slate, in other words, is an expansion of an existing product line and computing strategy and a complement to its older convertible sibling. And as Google works to establish itself as an ecosystem and expand its role as a retailer and all-purpose hardware manufacturer, offering such options — especially when those alternate configurations are proving to be popular and ever-more familiar among users — seems like an awfully smart move.
But let’s call it what it is, shall we? The notion of Chrome OS acting as a tablet platform and closely aligned complement to Android is certainly significant, but it’s been underway for quite a while. The Pixel Slate is an additional vehicle for experiencing Google’s category-defying computing vision, but it’s not the road itself — nor is it the beginning of any new detour.
As we navigate this wild world of blurring lines and broadening ambitions, maintaining such perspective is critical to understanding Google’s progress and evolution — and paying close attention to Chrome OS year-round, not just for a few brief moments surrounding an annual event, is the key to making that happen.
Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.
[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]