Since April 2020, we have been keeping an eye on the LaCrOS project. For a year and a half we have wondered and waited for Google to continue to develop this standalone browser on Chromebooks and now that we are nearing its official unveiling, there is a way for you to try if you like.
For those of you wondering what this is, we get it. LaCrOS has been around for a while, but Google’s intentions weren’t always clear. We can be pretty confident about what’s going on at this point, but we’re still not 100% sure what Google has planned for this.
What we do know for sure is that LaCrOS won’t be called LaCrOS when it launches and, honestly, it might not be called at all other than Chrome. Essentially, LaCrOS (Linuix and Chrome OS) is a highly customized container running the Linux version of the Chrome browser on Chrome OS. Why all this work to be successful? Well, we’re assuming that this will be about extending the lifespan of Chromebooks and decoupling Chrome OS updates from Chrome updates in the future.
Once implemented, the Chrome team can just focus on fixing Chrome for Linux, Mac OS, and Windows and these updates and security fixes can all happen on all systems at the same time. Chrome OS as an operating system can get different features and deploy them when it’s ready instead of depending on which Chromebook specific version of Chrome is down the road. With that in place, the Chrome browser on aging Chromebooks should be updatable long after Chrome OS stops receiving updates, allowing users to keep their devices for longer if they want to.
A very complex and delicate procedure
It should be noted, however, how closely Chrome relates to Chrome OS. Right now, there are tons of functional bits that are so intertwined that it’s hard to tell where the browser ends and the operating system starts. It used to be good, but as Chrome OS has matured it really feels like it’s time for the two to go their own way and be free to grow and adapt as needed.
Stop for a second and think about what that means, though. PWAs (web apps), SWAs (system-level web apps like Files & Settings), shortcuts, Android app links, and connection management all rely on the current version of Chrome to function. Account sign-in for Chrome OS is handled differently than on Chrome for other desktops, and there are a hundred other links that make it a huge undertaking for the Chrome and Chrome OS teams.
LaCrOS cannot launch in a half-baked state. No one will care that this is great technology that makes a Linux browser run like a native app on Chrome OS. No one will care how complex it is to make all of this happen. No one will realize that by the time this decoupling occurs, it will be more than 2 years of hard work. All that will matter is that it performs as well as the Chrome browser that has been the backbone of Chrome OS usage for over a decade. Anything less will be acceptable on a device that is 100% browser dependent, so all of this absolutely cannot be launched in beta. It must be good.
See for yourself
At first, I was really concerned about all of this. I tried the early versions of LaCrOS and it was very bad. He is late. It was missing all kinds of features. And most of all, I just felt… turned off. I remember trying at first and wondering what Google was even trying to do. There was no way for them to make a container-based browser feel native, right? There was no way they were getting this on par with what we use every day on Chrome OS.
And then it started to get better. And better. And from now on when you give LaCrOS a chance, I bet you’ll be hard pressed to distinguish the standard Chrome OS version of Chrome from this new version. Actually, I’m writing this article in LaCrOS right now and you know what? It’s exactly like Chrome on this Chromebook. Everything is where it should be, all of my apps and PWAs are counted (I had to reconnect to a few of them after the change) and the account switch works just like any other desktop.
Again this is no small feat and while we are bound to run into a few bugs here and there, I am so impressed with this version of Chrome on my Chromebook. Like I said above, when this launches and becomes the standard browser on everyone’s Chromebook, the transition should be smooth. This means that account management, PWA launch, and deep linking should all work as they did before LaCrOS came along. We’re not at 100% yet, but it’s very advanced and the good news is you can try it out in Stable if you want.
Testing LaCrOS as your primary browser
To get this all up and running you will need to enable a few flags (chrome: // flags). You can do as much or as little as you want, but some of these metrics will be needed to take full advantage of the new Chrome browser experience. The first and most necessary flag you will need is Lacro support. This activates the new browser. Just with that would be the Ignore the lacros availability policy this will essentially allow Chrome OS to activate LaCrOS based on your metrics and not other policies.
The next option would be to activate Lacros as main navigator. With this, Chrome OS will remove the standard Chrome from your shelf and it will be replaced with a yellow Chrome logo for LaCrOS. Don’t worry, the old Chrome is still in your app bar if needed.
Finally, you can choose to activate the Crosapi Web Applications flag which will essentially replace all your pinned / installed web apps with LaCrOS based versions. This means that for some of them you will have to log back in. Apps like WhatsApp and Discord obviously needed me to re-enter my credentials, while YouTube Music did very well to pull information from my existing Google account.
Once you’ve decided which of these metrics you want to try, turn them on, restart Chrome, and you’ll enter the new world of Chrome and Chrome OS as separate and distinct entities. You can browse and log in and configure your web apps and once you are done testing a bit you can turn off the flags and it will literally be back to how it was before you started testing it all. I just did it mid-shift and everything is fine. So play your game and know that like most things on your Chromebook, you can’t really do too much wrong with a little tinkering.
It’s still a mystery when we’ll see all of this land in Chrome OS’s stable channel. I bet it will be in the next few releases, but I have a distinct impression that Google wants to make sure everything is perfectly in place before making the switch. It can’t be overstated how important this is, because we’re betting Google won’t make a big deal out of what’s going on behind the scenes. For most people, they’ll be upgrading to the new version of Chrome OS, and Chrome will be a whole, whole new version of itself. And if everything works as expected, that’s all most users will need to know about it.