Based on the open source Chromium project that Google bases its Chrome OS platform on, it appears that a new project is underway to radically change the user interface of Chrome OS devices. Details are scarce and Google hasn’t announced any such changes, but there are dozens of code references in the Chromium issue tracker pointing to something called Project Athena.
From what I can piece together, Athena will alter the way users interact with windows and apps in Chrome OS, adding more touch-friendly capabilities. While Athena could lead to a Chrome OS tablet, or even a phone, it’s possible Google is simply reworking the front face of Chrome OS for touchscreen laptops. At this point, it’s far too soon to say.
I first heard of the Athena code references on Google+ from Brandon Lall, who shared a few specific URLs pointing to the Chromium issues site with regards to Athena. From there, I found several other related Athena issues being worked on. Here are just a few to give you an idea of what the project might entail:
- Athena will have a touchscreen or virtual keyboard, just as Chrome OS does today.
- Possibly similar to Google Now, Athena will use a card-based interface for some activities.
- Extensions for Athena will be supported: “[W]e need to have an extension system to athena. Possibly all we need to do is to port app_shell’s extension system to our use.”
- Something called Ares “will be the home/launcher screen in Athena as well as the launcher for Ash,” according to this Chromium entry.
Based on what I’ve found so far, Athena looks to be a replacement for, or the next evolution of, Ash, the window manager for Chrome OS that arrived in 2012. In fact, one of the issue descriptions from June 3 pretty much confirms that: “There will be a mismatch of settings between Athena and Ash, but we’ll want to share as much code as possible between the systems.”
As far as specific devices, none are mentioned in any of the code references I’ve come across. That would make sense if Athena is an improved windows manager for Chrome OS. However, Lall specifically pointed out one issue that suggests a possible tablet or phone — maybe even a wearable — that could Athena would run on: There’s mention of support for both a gyroscope and accelerometer, neither of which would typically be found in a Chromebook or Chromebox.
Touch is surely a big part of Athena because the project team is working on its first set of touch gestures. These will include dragging up from the bottom edge for “overview mode” and a split-screen mode when dragging right from the left edge; that sounds similar to how Microsoft Windows is used for multiple apps on a touchscreen device.
Might we finally see the Chrome OS tablet I’ve pined for, thanks to Athena? Possibly, although I have noted that Chrome OS isn’t truly optimized for touch, so a tablet with the current software wouldn’t be ideal. Perhaps Athena is the touch-optimized interface to change all that.