Google is still reeling from the biggest layoff in company history last Friday. Earlier cost cuts over the past six months have resulted in several projects being shut down or deprioritized at Google, and it’s hard to fire 12,000 people without some additional projects taking a hit. The New York Times has a report about which divisions are being hit the hardest, and a big one is Google’s future OS development group, Fuchsia.
While the overall company cut 6 percent of its employees, the Times pointed out that Fuchsia saw an outsize 16 percent of the 400-person staff take a hit. While it’s not clear what that means for the future of the division, the future of Fuchsia’s division has never really been clear.
Fuchsia has been a continuous mystery inside Google since it first saw widespread press coverage in 2017. Google rarely officially talks about it, leaving mostly rumors and Github documentation for figuring out what’s going on. The OS isn’t a small project, though—it’s not even based on Linux, opting instead to use a custom, in-house kernel, so Google really is building an entire OS from scratch. Google actually ships the OS today to consumers in its Nest smart displays, where it replaced the older Cast OS. The in-place operating system swap was completely invisible to consumers compared to the old OS, came with zero benefits, and was never officially announced or promoted. There’s not much you can do with it on a locked-down smart display, so even after shipping, Fuchsia is still a mystery.
The biggest questions surrounding Fuchsia are: “Why does this exist, and what are its goals?” Is Fuchsia an eventual replacement for Android or Chrome OS? Around 2018, when we first got Fuchsia running on a Pixelbook, the source code documentation for the custom kernel said it “targets modern phones and modern personal computers with fast processors,” which certainly made it sound like an Android and/or Chrome OS successor being built for flagship devices. That early codebase also included graphical user interfaces for PCs and phones, further driving home that this was a consumer OS. After Fuchsia got some initial publicity, it removed its public interface code.
2018 also saw a foundational Bloomberg report calling Fuchsia “a successor to Android,” and saying the team planned to launch on smart speakers in 2021 (which was spot on) and would later move into phones and laptops in 2023. Even the name “Fuchsia” was a reference to Apple projects some members of the team had been involved with. “Pink” was the codename for a canceled successor to classic Mac OS, and “Purple” was the codename for the iPhone OS. The color Fuchsia is a mix of pink and purple, so this all sounded very ambitious.
As for comments from Google, you can count on one hand the number of times anyone at the company has publicly said the “F word”:
- In 2017, Android’s VP of engineering, Dave Burke, called Fuchsia “an early stage experimental project” and warned that “like lots of early stage projects, it’s gonna probably pivot and morph.”
- In 2019, Android and Chrome chief Hiroshi Lockheimer described the project, saying, “We’re looking at what a new take on an operating system could be like. And so I know out there people are getting pretty excited saying, ‘Oh, this is the new Android,’ or, ‘This is the new Chrome OS. Fuchsia is really not about that. Fuchsia is about just pushing the state of the art in terms of operating systems and things that we learn from Fuchsia we can incorporate into other products.”
- In 2022, Fuchsia’s engineering director, Chris McKillop, left Google. In an exit interview with 9to5Google’s Kyle Bradshaw, when asked where he thought Fuchsia would be in 10 years, he started his answer with, “I think there’s a small chance that everything that Fuchsia has done ends up being inside the Linux kernel,” and added that in 10 years “everyone in the world is going to be trying to figure out how [best] to use Fuchsia.”
- In the same year, one Fuchsia team member commented on Hacker News that “Fuchsia isn’t necessarily targeting end users or application developers. Fuchsia exists to make products easier to build and maintain. Products are responsible for the app developer and end user experience.”
If we have to draw some kind of conclusion from this mess of data, Burke’s 2017 comment that it would “probably pivot and morph” was spot on. While maybe at one point the project was planned as an ambitious Android replacement, today it seems like there is a marked difference in how people talk about Fuchsia. The engineering director leaving feels like a huge red flag, and his interview, which cites the open source nature of the OS as a reason it will survive, makes it sounds like it will be up to other companies to pick up the Fuchsia ball and run with it. That makes it seem like there isn’t a grand plan for the productization of Fuchsia at Google.
One the other hand Google is still winging Fuchsia development on consumer smart displays, right now. Both the Nest Hub Max and 1st Gen Google Home/Next Hub got post-launch OS swaps from Cast OS. The first out-of-the-box Fuchsia product is supposedly in development, too, with the code base showing two smart speakers in the works. It’s unclear if this is a real earned victory for Fuchsia OS or if it’s just filling a vacuum. The Cast OS had the bizarre trajectory of growing out of the Chromecast project and into Google’s first smart display. It has always felt like a slapped-together OS that Google wanted to get rid of, and maybe Fuchsia just stepped into the space. On actual Chromecasts, Cast OS has been replaced by Android, making Cast OS basically dead inside Google.
The biggest mark against Fuchsia as a major project is that it’s currently shipping to consumers, and Google has never said a single nice thing about it. The company could easily put together a “here’s why Fuchsia is good” blog post and explain anything about the OS and why anyone would want it. Any public support would be a big deal, especially given Google’s reputation for killing projects. The fact that public promotion has never happened suggests the OS could leave just as quietly as it arrived.