8 facts that explain Google's complex situation with Chrome OS

This explainer puts Android and the Chrome OS into perspective and shows why these Linux derivatives will both come together and remain separate.

Google Chrome OS Android Chromebook Pixel C

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Google would fold the Chrome OS into Android, spawning widespread rumors and speculation. Then Chrome and Android VP of Engineering Hiroshi Lockheimer contradicted the Wall Street Journal in a tweet confirming Google's commitment to Chrome OS. And a Google spokesperson's response to my request for clarification unequivocally stated that Google wasn't sun-setting the Chrome OS. But then again, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who once ran the Chrome group, has said that Chrome OS and Android would come closer together. The controversy has been echoing ever since.

The root of this controversy is probably the high-end Chromebook Pixel C introduced in September. The Pixel C runs Android Marshmallow 6.0 and created a hybrid third use case, combining the unique features of both Android and Chrome OS into a superset of both.

Here are the eight things that will help you understand the controversy for yourself.

  1. Chrome OS was built to provide compatibility on low-cost hardware running Google's Chrome browser. Chromebooks presume its users will have consistent access to a high-bandwidth internet connection and a use case limited to running all apps in a browser. Chrome OS provides a minimal set of OS resources that a browser needs to run, like storage, memory management, and connections to external services such as HTTPS, identity, and security.
  2. Android was created to run immersive native mobile apps with rich interactions designed for the mobile internet. It's a complete operating system able to run many different autonomous apps, including the Chrome browser.
  3. Both Chrome OS and Android system architects chose Linux as the foundation for their operating systems because it reduces the time to market and the risk of building a mobile device. Chromebook and Android device manufacturers gain time to market advantages too, because Linux has been cooperatively ported to many hardware platforms by system on a chip (SoC) manufacturers such as Qualcomm and Intel, device manufacturers like Lenovo and Samsung, and the Linux community.
  4. Google would benefit immediately from the cost reductions from maintaining a single software stack of the Linux modules common to both Android and Chrome OS. However, there is a much bigger opportunity to scale Chromebooks by combining the Chrome OS and Android communities, especially with the device manufacturers. The hundreds of Android device manufacturers could quickly become Chromebook manufacturers.  
  5. Building apps for Android and extensions for the Chrome browser require entirely different skills. Android apps are built by native platform developers in Java and C/C++, while Chrome apps are built by front-end developers with HTML, CSS, and Javascript (not to be confused with Java). Different tools for different jobs. Android development targets the native features of the platform to build apps with rich interactions. Chrome targets the rich features of the web.
  6. The mobile use cases for smartphones, tablets, and PCs are converging. So is the hardware. For example, a teardown of the new MacBook by iFixit revealed a mobile phone-sized system board with an Intel Core M mobile processor. Nearly the same hardware design could be used for a smartphone, tablet, Chromebook, or ultrabook. Devices are defined by software, not hardware.
  7. As devices become more intelligent and the internet of things (IoT) emerges, many will need a user interface. Building a unique user interface for most applications wouldn't be justified when browsers are available and millions of developers understand how to program them. Android has been ported to every type of device, from power outlets to vending machines, making a merged Chrome OS and Android a strong and light candidate to support a Chrome browser-based user interface, not only for Chromebooks but for smart devices like refrigerators.
  8. The Android App ecosystem has achieved large-scale efficiency, with over 1.5 million apps on the Google Play store. Chrome apps number in the tens of thousands, and could benefit from Android's scale.

Converging Android and Chrome OS into one OS that supersedes both is easier said than done. The hardware is converging much more quickly than the use case and the software. Chromebooks, embedded devices, and smartphones all are used differently. The superset represented by the Pixel C is very attractive, but why drag the overhead of all the underlying Chrome OS and Android software to an interactive Chrome kiosk, a Chrome control panel, or a Chromebook used in an environment where just a browser meets all the requirements?

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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