Fuchsia a totally new operating system, currently in the very early stages of development at Google. How does it differ from Android and Chrome, and might it replace either one? Let’s break it down.

What Is This Thing?

Fuchsia first popped up on the tech world’s radar in mid-2016, when an unannounced open source project from Google appeared on the GitHub repository. According to initial inspection by the technology press, it was designed to be a “universal” operating system, capable of running on everything from low-power smartwatches to powerful desktops. That potentially includes phones, tablets, laptops, car electronics, connected appliances, smarthome hardware, and more.

A universal operating system is something of a holy grail for software makers, but it hasn’t really been achieved yet. Microsoft tried to make Windows 10 “universal,” at least in the sense that some phones have been made that can run it in a stripped-down version. Apple famously claimed (quite dubiously) that the original iPhone ran “real OS X,” before eventually giving up that concept in favor of a branded iOS. The closest we’ve come to operating systems that run at all levels of consumer hardware is, somewhat ironically, Linux. Various flavors of the Linux kernel are used for Android, Chrome OS, set-top boxes, routers and modems, smart devices, and tons of industrial software besides.

Microsoft’s attempt at a universal platform haven’t been very successful.

But simply getting different hardware to run on vaguely similar software guts isn’t really the point. The goal for Microsoft, Apple, and Google is to create a single operating system that can run the same apps with minimal developmental changes across as broad a range of hardware as possible. This would facilitate easy interconnection in consumer-level tech, attract software developers who want to efficiently create apps on multiple platforms, and crucially, get consumers locked into a single software ecosystem that’s easy to control (and hard to leave for the competition).

Google hasn’t come out to say that this is the goal of Fuchsia—in fact, Google hasn’t said much about Fuchsia at all—but it seems like a natural aspiration. That’s bolstered by some built-in cross-platform capabilities with Android and iOS.

How Is Fuchsia Related To Android And Chrome?

Distantly. While Android and Chrome OS both use a heavily-modified version of the Linux kernel, Fuchsia is built from the ground up on a totally new micro-kernel named Zircon.

The differences between a conventional operating system kernel and a microkernel are complicated, but the basic gist is that microkernels are built from the ground up for efficiency and flexibility. The concept goes back decades, but was largely abandoned as computer power, memory, and storage space blossomed in the 90s. Now, with the trend for consumer electronics shifting towards smaller, more efficient, and more portable hardware, Google sees the microkernel architecture as a potential fit for its next-generation operating system.

Fuchsia UI concepts running on an Android phone.

It doesn’t hurt that with a system it created all on its own, Google has more or less total control over how Zircon and Fuchsia evolve, both before and after it comes to market (if it ever comes at all). Google learned its lesson with Android, which is now heavily fractured at the consumer level thanks to its open source nature. Chrome OS is essentially locked-down by its licensing terms, even though it’s technically open source too. Fucshia, again open source, would presumably be controlled almost entirely by Google itself, even if it was running on hardware sold by partner companies.

How Will Fuchsia Affect Developers?

Fuchsia isn’t at a point where developers can practically create full applications yet. But when it gets there, Google doesn’t intend for the work it has put into Android to be totally abandoned. Fuchsia apps can be written in a variety of popular programming languages using the new Flutter software development kit.

Flutter allows apps to be written with maximum compatibility between Fucshia, Android, and iOS. Not only does that mean that apps can be written on all three platforms with a minimum of investment, it makes porting existing apps to Fuchsia and supporting all three platforms easy.

Flutter is also built around Google’s current visual design standard—Material Design—which it adheres to for all its Android, Chrome OS, and web properties (to a varying degree). It includes support for advanced UI elements based on the flexible Vulkan rendering engine, including volumetric shadows (a favorite tool of Material Design) and super-smooth 120 FPS animations. It’s also capable of some impressive gaming and media applications, though performance will of course depend on hardware.

If you’re wondering why Chrome OS isn’t in that compatibility list, remember that “apps” for Chrome are almost entirely web-based. It doesn’t download code and run it locally like most other operating systems. But Chrome OS can run Android apps now, and that capability is being considerably expanded by Google in each major release of Chrome. The easiest conclusion to make is that Google is hoping to transition its Play Store infrastructure to at least some full desktop Android-based apps for Chrome OS.

At that point, if Google can manage to launch Fuchsia and replace or transition both platforms, it would be an easy adjustment for developers (and thus users) to make.

When Is Fuchsia Coming Out?

The simple answer is: we have no idea. Fuchsia is in such early stages that Google probably doesn’t even have a fixed roadmap. Google has commented on the project very sparsely, except to confirm that it’s a real thing that has significant support. Right now, the only easily-available information on Fuschia is its source code, which is posted both on GitHub and Google’s own repository.

It’s entirely possible that at some point Google will evaluate Fuchsia in relation to current market conditions, and decide to scrap the project. It might continue with Android (flawed as it is) and Chrome OS, or develop something we haven’t even seen yet. But at the moment, Fuchsia looks like the most likely (if distant) successor to Android and possibly Chrome.

Can I Try It Now?

Sort of. Enough of the bones of Fuschia are available in the open source repositories that it’s possible to get an extremely early build of the project up and running—but only on a few specific pieces of hardware at the moment. At the time of writing, these are limited to the Intel NUC mini-PC, the Acer Switch Alpha 12 tablet, the HiKey960, and the Khadas VIM. Those last two are systems-on-a-chip, like a more powerful Raspberry Pi.

Acer’s Switch Alpha 12 is one of the only mainstream devices officially supported by early Fuchsia builds.

There’s one piece of hardware that isn’t officially supported, but which can run Fuchsia anyway: the Pixelbook. And it makes sense—as Google’s super-premium Chromebook, it’s natural to assume that there are a bunch of them roaming the halls in the hands of Google developers. Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica managed to get the early Fuchsia code up and running on a consumer model to check out the OS.

Ars Technica got Fuchsia running on the Pixelbook.

It’s also possible to run bits and pieces of Fuchsia code on Android phones using some older builds. But in all these cases ,you’ll need some serious tech chops to build the code to a point where you can install it, and the return on your time investment won’t be great. You’ll only be able to see how a very early version of the user interface works. Even the Google login isn’t functioning at the moment. I recommend checking out the tech articles that have already been written, or watching some hands-on videos on YouTube.

Image Credit: Ron Amadeo/Ars Technica, Microsoft, Amazon