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article imageGoogle's criticised Pixel C tablet wasn't meant to run Android

By James Walker     Dec 12, 2015 in Technology
Days after the creators of the Google Pixel C tablet were overwhelmed with negative feedback in a Reddit AMA, it's emerged the criticised device may never have been built to run Android. Its software is largely viewed as its major weakness.
The outcome of the AMA was widely reported yesterday. Google's engineers found themselves faced with waves of questions asking why the Pixel C was receiving so much negative feedback. The team ignored it all though, responding to 11 comparatively minor comments on the tablet.
The issues with the Pixel C are largely centred around its Android Marshmallow operating system, which has very little in the way of optimisation for tablet displays, and a series of hardware defects, many of which can also be attributed to software driver glitches. Reviewers have repeatedly concluded that the whole device is let down by Android, ultimately preventing it from becoming the productive tablet it's supposed to be.
There may be a reason why the Pixel C is so buggy though. Ars Technica reports it was probably never meant to run Android. Instead, the hardware was destined to run ChromeOS, Google's cloud-based operating system used on its range of Chromebook laptops. This also explains the Pixel C's name as "Pixel" is currently used on Google's flagship Chromebooks. The Pixel C may have been designed as a ChromeOS tablet.
Ars is confident the Pixel C was built for ChromeOS and there is evidence to support its claim. In 2014, a mysterious ChromeOS device known as "Ryu" appeared in code stored in Google's open-source repository for the operating system.
The source revealed some key details about the device. It had an NVIDIA Tegra chipset, a USB Type-C port, integrated light bar and wireless charging. The specs don't add up when considering a laptop - especially the wireless charging - but make a lot more sense if you assume the device to be a tablet.
A year later, there's still no sign of "Ryu," at least in its original sense. The product lives on though — as the Pixel C. Every Android device carries a file called "build.prop" that contains system-level hardware details. Opening the Pixel C's build.prop uncovers something interesting: it presents itself to Android under the name "ryu."
The Pixel C also has all the features that the first source file revealed about Ryu. It now seems certain that the two are the same device. Clearly, the hardware received software it wasn't built for.
What remains unclear is why the switch to Android was made. The tablet is designed to showcase the operating system for tablets but falls short of achieving that aim, making the generally-praised hardware design irrelevant in the process.
Ars Technica has managed to piece together a timeline which goes some way to explain the current state of the Pixel C. It seems as though Google ran into multiple issues while trying to make ChromeOS fit for a tablet.
Last July, when "Ryu" first appeared in ChromeOS' source, a number of experimental touch-focused features were added. Although some Chromebooks have touchscreen displays, the new additions were clearly built for tablets. A new window switcher, swipe gestures and touch keyboard were built under the codename of "Project Athena" but development had stalled by December 2014. Athena was cancelled but the Pixel C's hardware had probably already been built.
The company steered the device onto a very different course. Now, Pixel C would be a dual-booting hybrid, giving the user ChromeOS and Android. Android could be used when in touch mode and ChromeOS with the keyboard and mouse attached. Code to support this began to appear in the source and a leak got the news of "2-in-1 Chromebooks" to the press. By July 2015, the project was cancelled though.
Google launched the Pixel C just two months later in September 2015, running Android 6.0 Marshmallow. The rest of the puzzle is easier to figure out. Apparently desperate to launch the Pixel C's hardware this year, Google threw Android on and hoped for the best. But with just two months to make the OS work with the hardware, bugs and negative reviews were inevitable.
The Pixel C was never built to run Android. Android isn't designed for tablets but neither is ChromeOS. If this story reveals anything it's that Google doesn't currently have a software experience suitable for tablets, even though it's capable of building some premium hardware.
More about Google, pixel c, Android, Tablet, chromeos
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