Google improves the virtual keyboard in Chrome, but why?

The latest Chrome OS developer channel has an improved on-screen keyboard for devices with touchscreens. Currently that only includes Google’s(s goog) own Chromebook Pixel and a particular Acer C720 Chromebook model. Google has been working on the software keyboard for nearly a year — we first spotted its existence last April — leading to the question of “Why”?

Google’s Fran├žois Beaufort noted the latest keyboard updates on his Google+ page. On Wednesday he shared a screen shot of the keyboard which can now be optionally locked to the screen. That means it won’t disappear when a user leaves a text field, for example. Chrome OS users can also hide the keyboard or change keyboard formats with the newest developer version.

chrome OS keyboard dev

I can think of but a few reasons that Google would be spending any development effort on a virtual keyboard and they all revolve around Chrome OS devices with non-traditional form factors. A Chrome OS tablet, for example, that can fit into an optional keyboard dock. Or perhaps a convertible Chromebook with a screen that swivels to cover the hardware keyboard.

Either way, Chrome itself isn’t quite ready to power such devices. Yes, you can navigate through and use Chrome with a touchscreen — I do that with my Pixel today — but doing so without ever using a keyboard and mouse is less than optimal.

I know because I’ve tried to create my own “Chrome OS tablet” on two occasions, first with an Asus Transformer T100 and more recently with a Microsoft(s msft) Surface Pro 2.

chrome tablet

Although both devices run Windows 8.1, the Chrome browser can be run in a mode that simulates the Chrome OS experience, complete with a desktop the Chrome app launcher. I set both Windows devices up with that mode and used them for a few weeks, finding that certain activities — hovering on a menu in the browser, for example — can be frustrating when using touch only.

If Google is considering Chrome OS tablets or hybrids then, there’s still work to be done. My hope is that we hear more about such an effort at Google’s 2014 I/O developer event, typically held around May or June.

chrome in windows 8 mode

It’s certainly possible I’m off-base here. I don’t have any specific knowledge of Google’s plans and the company really hasn’t said why it’s creating a software keyboard in Chrome OS. But I do own touchscreen Chromebook. And from a usability perspective, there’s simply no tangible benefit to using the virtual keyboard when there’s a stellar hardware keyboard on the Pixel. Nor would there be for any other Chromebook in a traditional laptop form. Logic and experience tell me there’s more in the works.

Do I expect an actual new product like a Chrome OS tablet at this year’s I/O event? Nope.

I don’t see Chrome OS overcoming some of the remaining touch limitations by then for an actual product launch. However, it’s clear to me that Google is working on a software feature that current Chrome OS devices simply don’t need. Hopefully we’ll hear more about what Chrome OS devices would need a virtual keyboard at I/O.