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Google shuffle: can Android and Chrome OS combine to take on Microsoft?

Google shuffle: can Android and Chrome OS combine to take on Microsoft?

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All the building blocks are in place, but will Google use them?

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Chromebook Pixel angle (875px)
Chromebook Pixel angle (875px)

Google's Sundar Pichai has been on a tear lately.

As VP of Chrome and Apps, Pichai's been stacking successes: the Chrome browser leads web usage on desktops, Google's apps on iOS are amongst the best-designed anywhere, and the Chromebook Pixel has shown just what the company can do when it puts its mind to a product at the (very) high-end. Now, with Andy Rubin moving on to "a new chapter" within Google, Pichai's next job is to "double down on Android," according to CEO Larry Page.

What exactly will that mean? Most likely, it will mean that Google will merge Chrome OS and Android together into a single operating system. It won't happen right away, and it will require Pichai to manage and integrate two different teams with potentially different philosophies about the future of computing, but if he can pull if off, Google's platform will be in direct competition with Windows as the biggest mainstream operating system in the world. And while it's easy to spin up cotton-candy dreams of a future OS, the building blocks already available to Google offer up real potential for this OS to become just as dominant as Android itself.

Microsoft should be on notice

PC makers are already producing Chromebooks at varying price points as a way to test alternative systems and provide some competition for Microsoft. And why not? Chrome OS appears to be relatively easy to develop hardware against, and most of these companies show little hesitation about supporting any platform that has even a chance of moving hardware. Google has built relationships with manufacturers on both the Android and the Chrome OS platforms, and it could leverage them into an ecosystem fairly quickly. Microsoft should be on notice.

But Chrome OS' core philosophy — that it's just the Chrome browser — means that for the foreseeable future it probably can't serve as a primary computing platform for the vast majority of people. Native apps aren't going away anytime soon. So it's a good thing Google just so happens to have a native app platform that's become wildly more successful than anybody anticipated: Android.

"There will be convergence over time."

Merging the two makes so much sense that Pichai's own mother wonders why they have been separate. "For users, [the separation] makes sense," Pichai said at the D10 conference last year, but "there will be convergence over time." Very few companies have successfully developed two (or more) operating systems side-by-side, so taking any opportunity to converge them makes sense.

You can see hints that the convergence is coming in the Chromebook Pixel, which features a large, 3:2 touchscreen. However, Chrome OS is hardly optimized for the touchscreen at all right now. Scrolling isn't very good, touch-targets are tiny, and the number of Chrome apps that recognize touch actions is minuscule. But Android, of course, is fully touch-optimized.

On the flipside, Android has essentially been a failure at larger tablet screen sizes, and despite the fact that it has the Chrome browser, under Rubin’s leadership it's never felt like a truly web-native platform. Chrome OS, on the other hand, has failed at building a robust app ecosystem that people actually want to use and lacks robust touch input. The two happen to be complementary, and it makes perfect sense to bring them together. The Chromebook Pixel isn’t just a ridiculously-expensive laptop that Google made simply to show that it could (although it certainly is that). It’s also a platform for Google to explore the real future of computing.

Android and Chrome OS happen to be complementary, and it makes perfect sense to bring them together

And Google has no shortage of people who have experience trying to merge the web with a native operating system. Google's hired dozens of former Palm employees that currently work across many disparate parts of the company — from Android to Chrome to Android@Home to Google Play. The most important name on that list is obviously designer Matias Duarte, but the Chrome team has several ex-webOS developers who understand the intersection of web and native platforms.

Comparisons to webOS might be damning with faint praise, but Google happens to be strong precisely where Palm was weak. It has an abundance of resources, a platform with enough computing power, and (presumably) management willing to be in it for the long haul. Google also has committed manufacturing partners for both the Android and Chrome OS — in many cases making devices for both systems. webOS might have failed, but the dream certainly lives on within Google.

And perhaps most importantly, Google has the opportunity to strike while Microsoft is weak. Windows 8 hasn’t done very well, which is a particularly sharp problem for Microsoft’s OEM partners. That leaves a gap in the market waiting to be filled by somebody else: Apple, some variation of Linux, or Google. Google has the resources, talent, ecosystems, and manufacturer relationships to create a platform that could be a serious contender to replace the PC and give it a second shot at the tablet market — now it just has to do it.

Google could be a serious contender to replace the PC — now it just has to do it

In just over two months, Google's giant I/O developer conference will probably give us a glimpse of what's coming for both operating systems, though it's surely too early to announce a unified OS. Google has used I/O to announce major operating system and app updates — last year saw the release of Android 4.1 with Google Now, Chrome for iOS, and much more. This year, it seems obvious that we ought to see some sort of preliminary integration between Android and Chrome OS, or at least a hint that it's coming. If we do, it could be the first step towards Google attempting to leverage its dominance on the web and mobile into complete dominance over computing.

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