One thing actually attention-grabbing is going on proper now — however searching throughout the ocean of floating headlines in these echo-filled digital waters of ours, you’d by no means understand it.

The truth is, so far as most of the tech-watching world is worried, the information proper now could be that Google’s within the midst of rolling out an insignificant-seeming replace to an unimportant working system.

Goog almighty, are people lacking the boat.

Greater than a Chromebook story

Let me take a second to let everybody off the hook a little: It is easy to see why this information is not getting the eye it deserves. First off, the event in query is linked to Chrome OS — and as we have established a lot of instances over time, tons of tech-lovin’ people have a distorted view of that platform’s attain (bear in mind, far more folks purchased Chromebooks than Macs in the newest reported quarter) and its potential (lengthy story quick, we have come a looooooooong manner from the essential “browser within the field” idea Chrome OS launched with almost a decade in the past).

And past that, I will be trustworthy: The story itself actually does appear like a moist, barely mildewy puddle of nothing — not less than, on the floor. I imply, come on: At first look, what we’re speaking about right here is the truth that Google’s including a new screensaver choice into Chromebooks as of the Chrome OS 88 replace that is on its solution to present gadgets this week. A screensaver, you say? EXAGGERATED GASP! Massive frickin’ deal, proper?

So, yeah: I get it. None of this looks like a lot — actually not like something greater than a gentle (and pretty overdue) added comfort for one particular Google platform. However whenever you begin to assume past the floor and contemplate the bigger-picture implications of what this addition represents, you notice it is extra than simply a Chromebook story. And it may — may — find yourself being way more consequential than you’d initially count on.

We’ll get into the specifics of why in a second. First, some primary data to ascertain the framework of this dialog: The new Chrome OS screensaver — which, in typical Google form, isn’t always immediately available after receiving the main OS update (grumble, grumble, fist shake, wretch) — integrates seamlessly with Google Photos and lets your Chromebook show off images from your cloud-synced photo gallery whenever your computer’s inactive. It adds in info like current weather conditions and a music player, too, when applicable.

Chrome OS ScreensaverGoogle

Looks kinda familiar, doesn’t it? It should: The setup is awfully reminiscent of what you get with an Assistant-connected Smart Display — only here, instead of requiring separate, standalone hardware, it’s built directly into the laptop you’re already totin’ around all day. Heck, Google itself even refers to the new feature as a “personalized smart display” (lowercase, somewhat notably) for your Chromebook.

Remember, too, that most current Chromebooks treat Google Assistant as a system-level feature — an all-purpose interface that’s built into the recently rebranded Chrome OS “Everything button” and able to be activated with your voice, using the same “Hey Google” hotword you’d whisper seductively to your Android phone or (uppercase) Smart Display.

Now, to be sure, the Chrome OS screensaver setup isn’t quite at the same level as what we see in those other environments — yet. But it’s a hefty step in that direction. And that brings us to the broader significance of this, tying back into a theme we’ve talked about countless times in these quarters: the way the lines between Google’s different device categories are growing increasingly blurred — and the way that could eventually shake up the way we think about all this technology.

The bigger Google Assistant picture

All right, so Chromebooks are getting a built-in screensaver that integrates with Photos and looks and acts like a (lowercase) smart display — almost like a simpler version of what you see with the (uppercase) Smart Display, the standalone Assistant-in-a-physical-form product. And it wouldn’t take much to bridge that gap and turn the Chromebook into a full-fledged (uppercase) Smart Display, thereby giving what’s already become the “everything device” yet another category-defying role.

So what about Android phones? Shouldn’t they be a part of this transformation, too, and also be getting a similar sort of dual purpose as an on-demand Smart Display during their downtime?

Indeed, they should — and you know what? It wouldn’t take much at all to make it happen. In fact, Google’s already tantalizingly close. The progress has thus far just been limited to a small-scale accessory that’s available only for one specific Android line and that’s gone mostly ignored by the masses.

I’m talking about the Pixel Stand — a special stand that transforms any idle Pixel phone into a stationary interface for interacting with Assistant. It’s a similar sort of concept to this new Chromebook screensaver thingamajigger, only more advanced and even closer to the full Smart Display experience.

Google Pixel StandGoogle

The Pixel Stand’s Assistant mode has its own Assistant-centric interface, y’see — one that’s complete with contextual info and other Assistant-specific features. And since it runs on an Android phone that’s already capable of handling always-on listening, it’s always standing by and ready to respond to your spoken commands. It turns your phone into a Smart Display, in other words, in everything but name. And that’s a powerful perk both for people who own the device and for the company that makes it.

Speaking of which: It’s pretty obvious why all of this would be a positive for us, but why would Google want to give us a Smart Display experience on our existing devices instead of encouraging us to buy more hardware? That’s actually quite simple, too: One of Google’s biggest goals right now is getting everyone to use Assistant as much as possible, no matter where we are or what manner of device we’ve got around us. That’s why I’ve dubbed this the post-OS era — because more than any individual app, operating system, or device type, the Google of today wants to get you invested with Assistant. And for good reason: By many counts, the future of the company more or less depends on it. Assistant, in many ways, is becoming the nucleus of Google’s business.

And Google hasn’t been shy about admitting that, either: The company’s head hardware honcho, Rick Osterloh, has outright described his main mission as looking for ways “to get Google Assistant in front of people and build a sustainable business around it” (as paraphrased from a 2018 profile).

Well, you know what’s easier than getting everyone to buy standalone gadgets for interacting with Assistant in all areas of their lives? Yup, you guessed it: creating simple software that expands the gadgets we’ve already got and turns them into those same sorts of Assistant-centric portals whenever they’re resting.

The Smart Display could become less of a device category and more of a cross-platform feature

Right now, the pieces to this puzzle are scattered and unfinished, and the bigger picture is a teensy bit tough to envision. But make no mistake about it: Google’s got all the elements in front of it. And if it manages to maintain its focus for long enough to push all the pieces forward in the right sorts of ways — enhancing the new Chrome OS smart display setup into a more fully featured Smart Display experience and transforming the accessory-requiring Pixel smart display mode into a more universal Android-wide option — goodness gracious, we could see these blurred lines come into focus in no time.

At a certain point, the type of device you’re using becomes almost irrelevant. The label “Smart Display” becomes less of a device category and more of a cross-platform Google feature. And the pieces of hardware around you become mere vessels for the increasingly connected Assistant-centric ecosystems within ’em.

Having every Chromebook and every Android phone double as a Smart Display would be one heck of a significant step — and with this latest Chrome OS update, the foundation is officially in place. All that remains to be seen is if Google can make the most of what’s there and build it up into something special.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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