Yesterday saw the announcement of Google Chrome OS, “an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks.” “Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS...Google Chrome OS will run on both x86 as well as ARM chips and we are working with multiple OEMs to bring a number of netbooks to market next year.”
Replace “Google Chrome OS” with Android and “netbook” with smartphones, and this could have been a reprint of the 2007 announcement for Android.
This is not to knock the notion of Google having an operating system where Web-based applications are front-and-center, designed to fit the niche of devices like the CrunchPad. I've long been a fan of having a Web-flavored development option for mobile devices. However, I have to question why this is a separate initiative from Android.
Google, of course, anticipated this question, at least somewhat:
“Google Chrome OS is a new project, separate from Android. Android was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks. Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the web, and is being designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems. While there are areas where Google Chrome OS and Android overlap, we believe choice will drive innovation for the benefit of everyone, including Google.”
There are certainly areas of Google technology where having parallel competing efforts may be fruitful. For example, in the area of search, throwing more brains at their existing algorithms may not be as useful as having some people experiment in other areas. But Google's search algorithms are fairly mature; Android, powerful as it is, is not nearly as mature. Outside of office politics, it makes no sense to me to have two separate engineering teams developing two separate mobile operating systems, even if one is designed to scale downwards (Android) and the other is designed to scale upwards (Google Chrome OS). To me, the announced approach weakens both Android and Google Chrome OS through wasted engineering effort. It's not like Google has an army working on Android — why field a second disparate army for Google Chrome OS? In particular, why have two distinct open source projects competing for the same limited pool of potential mobile operating system contributors?
After all, it's not like this is new territory. Symbian has long been blasted for having what amounts to multiple operating system flavors, fragmenting the device market and developer ecosystems. It is only recently, with the Symbian Foundation, that they seem to have realized that they are better served putting out one compelling option than multiple distinct ones. While Symbian has been a success, their developer ecosystem has paled in comparison to most others. This does not bode well for Google's forking of their developer ecosystem through Google Chrome OS.
Maybe I am wrong. Perhaps I am misreading the announcement, or perhaps the Google Chrome OS and Android teams will be able to leverage each other's efforts, or maybe they will create some joint open source contribution framework to maximize what the community can bring to the table.
I just have the sinking feeling that, in 18 months' time, I'll be looking at Google Chrome OS, thinking about Android, and wondering what might have been.