In the latest round of speculation about what Google is up to, a number of reports have shed light on a potential move to unify Google’s two operating systems, Android and Chrome. The move could result in familiar software running on new devices — like laptop computers running Android, or something very much like it.
Alistair Barr reported for The Wall Street Journal that Alphabet’s Google plans to “fold its Chrome operating system for personal computers into its Android mobile operating system.” People familiar with the plans told the Journal that Google engineers have been working for about two years to combine the two operating systems, and the company reportedly intends to unveil a single, new operating system in 2017.
Android is the world’s most-widely used mobile operating system, and it powers more than a billion phones and tablets made by a wide range of manufacturers. Chrome powers lightweight computers called Chromebooks, designed to enable a web-centric computing experience, which account for less than 3% of PCs. Barr characterizes the move to unify the two as “a long-awaited recognition that the different computing approaches embodied by Android and Chrome are no longer relevant to Google.”
Barr frames the move as the inevitable result of the company’s choice to try out two different approaches to computing devices and see which one sticks. He notes that with Chrome, which runs on laptops that started shipping in 2011, Google is “encouraging users to access all software and apps through its Chrome browser on cheap, stripped-down laptops.”
In contrast, Android, which was unveiled in 2007, is characterized as “an almost retro approach” that “focused on devices that only worked when software and apps were downloaded onto them.” Barr concludes, “Google didn’t know which approach would succeed, so it pursued both, and healthy internal debates ensued. But as mobile device and app usage soared, Android prevailed.”
By combining the two operating systems, Google would seek to get Android running on as many devices as possible. That might include not only phones, tablets, and smartwatches, but also laptops — which would likely increase Android’s user base. Barr envisions how adding laptops could help Google attract even more developers, particularly those who want to “write apps once and have them work on as many gadgets as possible, with little modification.” A unified operating system could give computer users access to the Google Play Store and its selection of apps.
The Journal’s sources said that Chromebooks will get a new name to reflect the new operating system, though they expect Google to retain the name “Chrome” for its Internet browser. Chrome OS will remain an open-source operating system, which other companies will be able to use to make laptops, and Google engineers will continue to maintain it. But according to one of the sources, Google’s focus will be on extending Android to run on laptop computers.
The prospect calls to mind the approach that Microsoft has taken with its operating system, building versions of the same OS, Windows 10, to run on PCs, tablets, and phones. It’s also directly opposite to Apple’s strategy with its operating systems, iOS and OS X, which are kept distinct. Tim Cook recently said that combining operating systems “subtracts from both, and you don’t get the best experience from either.”
Whether or not Google would combine its operating systems has been a topic of speculation, particularly since the company unveiled the Android-powered and productivity-focused Pixel C tablet, and made some Android apps available on Chromebooks. But combining the two operating systems won’t be easy, even though they’re both derived from Linux. Additionally, there are significant differences in device form factors to reconcile, such as computers’ use of keyboards and larger screens, and the difficulty of using multiple apps on a smartphone or tablet.
But even the Journal’s report doesn’t mean the merging of Chrome and Android is imminent, or that Chrome is going anywhere. As Jared Newman reports for Computerworld, Google has denied that Chrome is going away, an anonymous source has said that Chrome will continue to exist alongside Android with “a third project that combines the best of both,” and reports indicate that Chrome will continue to be available for PC makers even as they’ll also gain the ability to build Android-based PCs.
While Chrome is more secure than Android or Windows, which makes it an attractive option for businesses and schools, Android has achieved more success among general consumers. It also has a massive app ecosystem that would benefit users of laptops and desktops — especially considering that few developers have built apps for Chromebooks, given that the user base for the devices is so small. Nonetheless, it seems likely that Chrome will stick around, even if Google releases an operating system that combines features of Android and Chrome.
VentureBeat’s Emil Protalinski notes that it’s possible to carry on speculating endlessly about how Google can combine Chrome and Android, but “the reality is Google will continue bringing Chrome OS features to Android, and vice versa. This is something we’ve seen happening for years, and Google hasn’t been hiding that it wants the two platforms to converge.” But there’s only one Chrome feature that Protalinski — and, very likely, many other users — really wants to see adopted by Android: the way that Chrome is updated, i.e., regularly, in small increments.
As Google explores the best way to combine the two operating systems, it’s likely identifying the best features of each operating system. We can only hope that the features that matter most to users, like a system for delivering regular updates, will make the list. In most cases, Android has what Chrome doesn’t. But looking at what Android could learn from Chrome would be in Google’s, and users’, best interest as the two operating systems become more closely integrated than ever before.