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Chrome Devs Working on ‘Project Athena’ — But What Is It?

Recent code commits suggest new feature in development — but what it is remains unknown

galactica_athena_sharonRecent commits to the codebase that underpins Chrome appears to suggest that a new user experience for Chrome, codenamed ‘Project Athena’, is in active development.

A batch of source code commits and issues tracker listings have been found tagged with the label.

Kevin Tofel at Gigaom reported on the findings to speculate that Athena could be a “replacement for, or the next evolution of, Ash,” the current window manager used in Chrome OS.

It’s perhaps a little too early to make that broad of a leap. Responding to one issue, the Password Manager team  said they hadn’t heard of project Athena and required an introduction.

Like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle without the box image and vital edge pieces, it’s hard to mentally picture the form Athena is going to take. The fragments available do point to it being some kind of significant update to both the aesthetics and user experience of Chrome OS.

Ares App Launcher

But to start out with the familiar, there’s a new application launcher in the works called Ares. Chromium developers describe it as such:

Ares will be the home/launcher screen in Athena as well as the launcher for Ash. We’ll need to make sure Ares can build as part of either Athena or Ash. We’ll need a container in Athena to contain it.”

Probably not this familiar.

What this will ultimately end up looking like is anyone’s guess, but so far the code is pointing to a new take on our friend the App Launcher.

Searches, settings, support, and speech recognition all make appearances in the codebase and the current launcher looks to be a list of apps – nothing too dissimilar to what Chrome OS already has.

There’s also a “home card” for launching applications, currently set to be bound to CTRL+L. Whether Ares or the home card ends up looking anything like the App Launcher as we know it has yet to be determined, but shouldn’t be as jarring an experience as a UI overhaul would suggest.

Speculation: Android-like experience?

What follows is merely speculation based on personal interpretation of often vague issues and commits. Please take the following with a handful of salt.

Putting the familiar to one side, jumping into the publicly viewable source code for Athena and tickets in the Chromium issue tracker reveals some wholly speculative but intriguing impressions of what Project Athena could be heading toward, including workflows that sound similar to those found in Android.

A stacked future for the browser in Chrome OS?

A stacked future for the browser in Chrome OS?

Athena will purportedly drop “tabbed content” altogether, which may open the door for making the browser in Chrome OS — or at least the part of it that runs in Athena — behave more like its mobile interface for phones.

There, tabs often behave like items in a stack rather than separate entities needing to be closed outright like on the desktop. Opening a link in a new tab then pressing the back button doesn’t simply close the app or do nothing at all; it closes the tab and returns to the previous tab.

The other building blocks of Project Athena even follow a similar nomenclature to Android. Activities form the basic structure of Android apps, and in Project Athena they appear as the foundation to a new workflow.

The source code for these ‘activities’ currently contain a WebActivity and an AppActivity – the former used when browsing web content and the latter for Chrome Apps. A number of hardcoded “app IDs” for Google products, like Gmail and Google Calendar, currently open web activities to their respective sites.

It’s unclear how exactly activities will be organised, with tasksstacks, cards, and simply windows used to refer to how a user could switch between various parts of the Athena workflow. A ticket for basic gesture support shows “switch[ing] to the previous task” accomplished by a drag from the left edge to right, while a ticket for the Most Recently Used stack offers a way for users to see their latest activities.

android-recent-apps-list

What’s more, the MRU ticket has a number of points that sound similar to what Android’s own app/task workflow currently offers. A “UX [that] will steer users away from closing content” should still offer a way to close unused Chrome Apps and pages, however subtle, but would otherwise show a prioritised list of your previous tasks – not unlike Android’s recent apps list.

This navigation could also be using a similar style to Android’s recent apps or even a card-based UI similar to Google Now, et al., with Athena “organiz[ing] cards of activities in an MRU fashion.”

Mapping “anything the user can experience [to] a URL” to provide navigation support for traversing the backstack could also make Athena’s workflow behave like Android’s tasks, depending on how the Athena team ultimately implement navigation between activities and their stacks.

On top of it all, the notion of adding activities to a particular stack/task is a workflow you’d expect from an intent system. Chrome’s Web Intents implementation has since been removed, but various files can already be opened directly in Chrome Apps and url_handlers offer apps an opportunity to handle URLs in much the same way Android apps do with intent filters.

Pulling all of this speculation together, you’d launch the Gmail activity from Ares, click a link to open a new web activity, open a few more links, click a calendar item on a webpage to get to the Google Calendar activity, then swipe/click back through the backstack to get to your emails again.

Whether this is what Project Athena has in mind remains to be seen, but it’d certainly be a new way to work on the Chrome OS desktop – for better or worse.

Chrome OS Tablets?

chromium-tablet-20100202

The Chrome OS Tablet — will it ever be?

Back to Kevin Tofel at Gigaom who also speculates that the new interface might be for a Chrome OS-powered tablet.

Project Athena does appear to bring in a number of touch-oriented features currently found in Chrome OS that’ve been, up to now, used only for touchscreen Chromebooks.

High DPI assets could simply point to more Chromebooks sporting “retina” displays in the future and adding/porting support for accelerometers and gyroscopes –  the former most notably used for determining screen orientation on Lenovo’s convertible Chromebooks – makes sense for other convertible form factors and a general attempt to make Athena as compatible with existing APIs as possible.

There are also ample references to gestures, running two apps side-by-side, wrapping activities in containers with title bars and navigation functions, and a whole heap more.

It’s a bit too early to be throwing money at the screen for a Chrome OS tablet, but it’s an ever-enticing thought nonetheless!

Hera, Zeus and Quantum Design

quantum polymer head

With Project Hera doing some of its own interesting things on Android, could there be a Project Zeus to bridge the two together? Is Athena some kind of workspace for interacting with Hera tasks? And does any of this relate to recently leaked plans for a unified design language across all Google apps known as ‘Quantum Paper‘?

While Google has yet to confirm any such plans at present, Google I/O may quietly reveal more. But for now the only real certainty in all that there’s a whole heap of uncertainty. 

  • Kenny Strawn

    Given how Athena and Hera are both names from Greek mythology, they definitely seem to suggest more consistency between the mobile and desktop interfaces… Definitely doing a “Proj:Athena” search in the bug reports to find out more on this.

    It appears many of the bugs already have commits associated with them… so in the next couple of weeks, if Athena hits the Canary builds (and, thus, my C720), yup, it’ll definitely be time for a review…

  • David Wales

    Chrome OS in a chrome package makes the most sense. Chrome apps packaged for all platforms available in the play store.

  • Kenny Strawn

    Okay, I used the bug reports as an opportunity to snoop through the Athena source code, and here are my findings:

    * Android-like “Activities” (there’s classes such as “athena::Activity” and “athena::ActivityManager” defined in the C++ source files that look exactly like their “android.app.Activity” and “android.app.ActivityManager” counterparts):
    * “athena::SampleActivity”
    * “athena::WebActivity”
    * Window decorations:
    * Window titles (certainly something you don’t see in Chrome OS’s current implementation)
    * Customizable text color for the aforementioned titles
    * Icons in the window borders
    * Overview Mode:
    * Drop shadows
    * Scrollable window list (hmmm, definitely Android-like)
    * Side-by-side tiling (“split screen”)
    * A home screen interface codenamed “Ares”

    Yup, definitely seems like a boatload of changes, to say the least…

  • Smallwheels

    I hope Google doesn’t make Chrome a bloated mess like Windoz or OS X has become. Features for features sake just use too much CPU and GPU. I want a streamlined OS that runs fast on whatever low to mid range hardware I own. I don’t want to need an i5 to run an OS just so I can do e-mail and stream videos.

    The latest Apple OS coming out this fall is full of graphics intensive applications. Apple just wants customers to buy more expensive machines to run those things. It must be part of their plan to make their OSs obsolete quickly by letting people upgrade to the latest version free of charge. When their machines can’t handle all of the new graphics it makes them want a newer machine that can handle it. Thus Apple sells more machines.

    If Google is going this route the Samsung Exynos 5 Octa processors are seeming like the better hardware choice for Chrome OS. They have more cores to handle all of these operations at once.

    • Kenny Strawn

      That or the Haswell Celerons (each of my Acer C720′s two Celeron 2955U cores scores an Octane benchmark of between 11,000 and 13,000 ― double that of the cores on the Samsung Chromebook 2) and/or Core i3′s… Or, better yet: Anyone got a Chromebook with a Snapdragon 810 (64-bit AND quad-core; the Exynos is only 32-bit) in the pipeline?

      • http://www.nerdofsteel.com Rocco Augusto

        I would not be mad if they released a non-flimsy feeling Intel i3/i5 based Chromebook either. While I love using my Chromebook to code when I want to sit in a coffee shop, it does at time feel like I am typing on a toy. Something solid and more developer focused would be amazing.

  • http://www.nerdofsteel.com Rocco Augusto

    Google I/O is just a couple weeks away and I’m sure we’ll find out how Project Hera and Project Athena are linked. My theory? Like how Apple recently released Swift, at Google I/O we can expect to see a release of a javascript and UI framework based off the Chrome Packaged App API (and probably AngularJS) that would allow developers to create ChromeOS and Android apps from a single codebase. It will probably sync use states between the apps as well so you can stop using it on one platform and pick up right where you left off on the other which lines up with Project Hera rumors of allowing HTML5 developers to develop intents slash “cards” on the new Android framework.

    Google is already working on a way to port ChromeOS to Android with the help of Cordova and Chrome’s API’s (https://github.com/MobileChromeApps/mobile-chrome-apps ). Expanding on this and creating a combined eco systems to allow developers to bring their apps to more users with less development time can do nothing but help them. Think of it as Phonegap or Titanium Mobile, but Google sponsored.

    EDIT: I also wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a way to build ChromeOS apps and compile them for Windows, OS X, and *Nix without the need of having Chrome installed on your system. In essence, making ChromeOS apps “real apps” instead of extensions are they are viewed now.

    • Kenny Strawn

      You’re not alone when it comes to the take on how “Mobile Chrome Apps” appears to tie in with this…

      • http://www.nerdofsteel.com Rocco Augusto

        And here I was just spouting hypothesis as a developer and putting the checkins/bugfixes together. Glad to see that others have the same theories. :) With any luck it will be called Olympus and each Project will just be another inhabitant in the ecosystem.

  • Carson Greene

    Yeah, I say that Project Hera and Project Athena are linked together. Given that both are named after Greek gods, this is definitely plausible; this is likely the desktop component of Hera. Can’t wait to see how it’ll actually turn out!

    • Kenny Strawn

      The details in the bug reports (and, especially, source code) definitely paint an awesome picture, to say the least…

  • eb

    Maybe, it’s a less restricted version of Chrome OS.

  • Kenny Strawn

    According to what I found in the Athena source code and added to my now-updated blog post, Ubuntu-style scopes taking the form of separate tabs in the app launcher (akin to the Widgets tab in Android pre-KitKat) may also be in the pipeline… for both Hera AND Athena, that is.

  • Wyllie Young Wylls Chilunga

    wayland/mir/surfaceflinger please? We cant be running X for ever

  • JP

    I am more caught up on the reference to containers in Athena. LXC and Docker are big news these days, and Google uses LXC extensively for their infrastructure. It makes a ton of sense to me for more powerful ChromeOS machines to run the UI in it’s own container and provide other containers for ‘heavy’ apps. This provides a nice path forward for games or workstation-level applications on ChromeOS, while keeping the security story and ease-of-management as well. Containers also allow for a good compatibility layer when discussing Android apps on ChromeOS.

    So, if I turn out to be right on this (and I really hope I am because I’d love to see/use that product), ChromeOS as we know it will continue using Ash, and Athena will provide a superset of that functionality by keeping the shell / UI in Ares while also providing containers for other ‘heavy’ apps, enabling workstation-level ChromeOS devices and android apps on ChromeOS (which makes the tablet story a lot more compelling).

    • Suqsid

      So you see the next version of Chrome OS like Windows 8 with its Modern UI and Classic shell, right?

      • JP

        Not really; it’ll still have a unified shell but will allow ‘heavier’ apps to run in the same environment by encapsulating them with LXC. It turns out that I was right about this in part: at I/O this year they announced that they’d be supporting android apps on Chrome, and it sounds like they’re using LXC.

        I’d still love to see them go one step farther with full Linux app support (Really I just want to be able to run Steam, Photoshop and a full local Dev environment on my ChromeOS device), but this is a good start.

        Definitely dreaming now, but being able to run Docker containers on ChromeOS would be amazing.

        • Suqsid

          This is really exciting. I think we’ll see an 11-inch Chrome tablet hybrid (or convertible) to replace the HP Chromebook 11. Hopefully this fall since Android apps on ChromeOS and Android L are coming this fall too. Also the HP Chromebook 11 has been introduced last fall. Let’s keep dreaming!

  • Kenny Strawn

    Okay Sam and Joey, Francois Beaufort has a screenshot of the work in progress, thanks to, yes, a GYP_DEFINES flag like the one used to compile Ash back in its infancy…