Google has been developing an entirely new operating system that's currently capable of running on its high-end Pixelbook.
But here's the thing: it's unclear at the moment what this operating system is intended for, including what devices it might one day officially power. Here's everything we know so far about the project, which is going by the name Fuchsia. Keep checking back, however, as we plan to update this piece over time with the latest reports, rumours, leaked information, and, of course, any and all confirmations.
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What is Google Fuchsia OS?
- Early beginnings of an all-new operating system
- It’s going to probably pivot and morph, Google says
Fuchsia is an evolving pile of code. It was originally added to Google's code depository and on GitHub in 2016. The code is the early beginnings of an all-new operating system. Interestingly, it's not based on Linux Kernel - the core underpinnings of both Android (Google's mobile operating system) and Chrome OS (Google's desktop and laptop operating system). Fuchsia is an altogether different beast.
Here's what Dave Burke, Google's vice president of Android engineering, told Android Police about Fuchsia in 2017: "Fuchsia is an early-stage experimental project. We, you know, we actually have lots of cool early projects at Google. I think what’s interesting here is its open source, so people can see it and comment on it. Like lots of early-stage projects, it’s gonna probably pivot and morph."
Then, in 2018, Fuchsia developer Travis Geiselbrecht made things more confusing when he said (via a public Fuchsia IRC channel, as spotted by ArsTechnica) that Fuchsia isn't "a toy thing." He confirmed it's not a 20-percent project, where Google developers are allowed to spend their time on things that interest them, nor is Fuchsia "a dumping ground of a dead thing that we don't care about anymore."
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What does Google Fuchsia OS look like?
- Compiled Armadillo system UI has a card-based design
- When running on a Pixelbook, it only shows the time
Fuchsia has already been given an early user interface with a card-based design, according to Ars Technica, which posted a video and images of the software in 2017. The interface, reportedly called Armadillo, was actually first discovered by Kyle Bradshaw at Hotfix.
Unlike Android OS or Chrome OS, both of which are based on Linux, Fuchsia is built on Zircon (formerly Magenta), a new kernel created by Google. Meanwhile, Armadillo is built in Google’s Flutter SDK, which is used to create cross-platform code capable of running on multiple devices and operating systems. With Armadillo, different cards can be dragged around for use in a split-screen or tabbed interface.
The cards even appear to offer up smart suggestions. However, more recently, ZDNet loaded the mystery OS onto a Pixelbook, and it was only able to show the time. "It has barely any functionality," the site said. "This isn't even alpha software. It's still a science experiment."
What's the point of Google Fuchsia OS?
- It's just a kernel at this point, so it's anybody's best guess
- Google is likely future-proofing itself with Fuchsia
One popular school of thought is that Fuchsia is a new OS that could unify Chrome OS and Android into a single operating system (something that's been heavily speculated since 2015). However, recently surfaced documents and different bits from the code and UI assets suggest the OS likely isn't a fusion of Android and Chrome OS, nor is it any OS. It’s just a core of an operating system, at this point - a kernel.
Google's own documentation describes the software as targeting "modern phones and modern personal computers" with "fast processors" and "non-trivial amounts of RAM." It also clearly states that "Fuchsia is not Linux." And two developers listed on Fuchsia's GitHub page - a senior software engineer at Google and a former engineer on Android TV and Nexus Q - are well-known experts in embedded systems.
As we noted, Fuchsia is built on Zircon, a "medium-sized microkernel" based on the LittleKernel project meant for embedded systems, such as a device that doesn't require a whole OS, like an IoT device. Google's documentation notes Zircon supports user modes, graphics rendering, and a "capability-based security model". This all points to Fuchsia being an OS for IoT, but Google already has Android Things.
Also, Ars Technica has compiled the Armadillo system UI, and it seems like Fuchsia is intended to be a smartphone or tablet OS. If we had to speculate, we'd say Google has a specific goal in mind for Fuchsia that it's keeping totally secret for now (or at least until it's more real and can be made official). On the other hand, maybe Google's just tinkering around or future-proofing itself with Fuchsia.
ZDNet even speculated that it's "not a replacement for what we already have; it's a door to a future we're not living in yet."
Will Google Fuchsia OS replace Android?
- A new OS would solve Android's issues
- But Android is really popular; why reinvent the wheel?
Android has fragmentation issues. This is caused by hundreds of devices from dozens of manufacturers using different, custom versions of Android - rather than the latest, purest version. Android also has update issues, stemming from the operating system being open source. Google has an annual release schedule for Android updates, but it takes about four years for an update to fully flood the ecosystem.
You see, Google gives Android to OEMs and carriers and lets them tinker with it and load it onto random hardware, resulting in fragmentation. Google can't directly push updates to devices if any modifications have been done. Android is also based on Linux, which has been dogged by many legal issues, and the kernel's been completely tweaked, creating a prime environment for bugs and vulnerabilities to grow.
A new operating system and platform would solve all these issues for Google. It wouldn't be shackled by pricey patent licensing deals. It would be safer, built, and optimised for today. It could also be modular and be truly unified, meaning it would work across many devices. But, here's the thing: Android is one of the most popular operating systems available. Why would it try to reinvent the wheel with Fuchsia?
What else could Google Fuchsia OS be?
Hacker News users have suggested Fuchsia could be designed for augmented reality interfaces.
Are there any other Google Fuchsia OS clues?
Nope. But the top of Fuchsia's GitHub page does say "Pink + Purple == Fuchsia (a new Operating System)".
Why is the Google Fuchsia OS code public?
As for why the project/code is out in the public and thus was able to be discovered in such a low-key manner, Brian Swetland, one of Fuchsia's listed developers, reportedly explained: "The decision was made to build it open source, so might as well start there from the beginning."
Which devices can run Google Fuchsia OS?
- It boots on small-form factor Intel PCs
- Can run on Google's own Pixelbook
There are a couple of devices listed in the Git with which developers can deploy and run the OS. Swetland revealed Fuchsia is booting reasonably well on small-form factor Intel PCs and an Acer Switch Alpha 12 laptop. Deploying Fuchsia on a device requires two computers, a host, and a target device. The USB boot process also needs developer mode on Chrome OS and, oddly, "will be destructive” to the USB device.
Chrome Unboxed reported that Google has also released documentation allowing developers to load Fuchsia onto the Pixelbook. It’s still very much early days still, but it's interesting that Google is allowing Pixelbook to experiment with Fuchsia, which has mostly been linked to embedded systems and small-form factor Intel PCs and Chromebooks. You can find a Fuchsia-deploying tutorial on how-to commit.
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