toshiba cb35 a3120 chromebook feb 2014 top left lidImage: Michael Homnick

Google reveals Athena, a Material Design-inspired revamp of Chrome OS

Chrome evangelist François Beaufort gave us a glimpse of the potential future of Chrome OS on Friday, and boy is it ugly.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh. The lone screenshot Beaufort provided of the “Athena project” is clearly in its early days; the developer fully warns that the Chromium team is still experimenting with it. “The first draft consists in a collection of windows with some simple window management,” he wrote on Google+.

Even so, it’s hard to look at.

chrome os athena

The first look at Project Athena for Chrome OS mashes up Material Design with the feel of Apple's Time Machine. (Click to enlarge.)

My misgivings extend beyond the rough look of the early build. While Athena appears designed to fit into Google’s “Material Design” focus—the new aesthetic surging through the upcoming Android L and, soon, Google’s various services—it’s hard to understand why a multi-windowed approach is a better solution than the traditional browser tabs found in Chrome OS today.

Sure, the revamp matches up with the way Android L’s app switcher treats both open apps and discrete webpages as individual entities, blurring the line between online and offline. But is that really a better solution than tabs for an OS built for PCs with touchpads and keyboards, especially with so much of Chrome OS revolving around the browser itself? I’m not sold at first glance.

Chrome OS has made great strides over the past months, adding a Start Menu-like App Launcher, Chrome Apps that run outside the browser, and a slew of offline capabilities. More than mere conduits to the web, Chromebooks are finally starting to feel like true PCs with a desktop operating system. Beaufort’s screenshot has me worried that some of Chrome OS’s functionality may be sacrificed so that the operating system better fits into the overarching Google design aesthetic.

I hope not. And, hey, I’m probably being too rough on a single screenshot of an early build of Chrome OS’s “new kind of user experience,” as Beaufort calls Athena. But it’s because I care—I use a Chromebook as my primary day-to-day laptop.

If you want to keep tabs on Athena’s progression and aren’t scared of nitty-gritty code, head over to the Chromium source and compile the “athena_main” target with ninja -C out/Release athena_main, according to Beaufort.

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