About a year after the debut of the first Android handset, Switched On discussed the threat that Chrome OS posed to Android. To reprise it briefly: Like chief rivals Apple and Microsoft, Google has two operating systems trying to bridge the rift between consumer electronics and traditional computing, but Chrome is different than Mac OS and Windows in an exceptionally important way.
Rather than trying to refine the traditional software experience (as Apple has done with the Mac App Store and other iOS-inspired developments in the queue) or move that experience forward to tablets (as Microsoft is doing with Windows), Chrome OS is not looking to carry forward any legacy beyond the browser.
Unlike with Mac OS vs. iOS or Windows vs. Windows Phone, the battle isn't over which apps make sense, but rather the irreconcilable difference around whether apps to begin with. This makes Google's suggestion that the two operating systems might merge at some point less credible, and sent a mixed message to developers about whether to focus their efforts on apps or the web. At Google I/O 2011, however, the company clarified its position.
At Moscone Center in San Francisco, Google celebrated the duality of its operating systems, but further explained that each targeted particular devices. Whereas it was once said that Chrome might be an option for tablets and Google TV, Android has fully claimed that slot with Honeycomb, whose apps will appear on televisions. Furthermore, Android will venture forth into categories that Google hasn't tackled before, such as Project Tungsten, its media streaming/home automation platform.
Meanwhile, nearly everything beyond Android's direct grasp will be have the option of communicating with it directly via the Android Open Accessory Platform and indirectly via Android @ Home. Where does that leave Google's second OS? Chrome has been relegated to notebooks -- Chromebooks, specifically -- with the team offering up the silver lining that the laptop is still where most people do most of their Web browsing.
Chrome will play defense and try to carve out a niche, by reminding us of the liabilities of the app environments on Mac and PC.
Many have suggested that Chrome is primarily of interest to managed, security-minded corporate or educational environments, but Chrome's refocus has other implications. The app paradigm will carry forward into the next generation of nimble devices where Android has big numbers (although has room to improve) and expansion to new platforms entirely. Chrome, on the other hand, will play defense, trying to carve out a niche against one Goliath (Mac OS) and that Goliath's even bigger rival (Windows) by reminding us of the liabilities of the PC app environment. The Chromebook emerges as less of a platform warrior, and more of a complement device. To borrow Steve Jobs' characterization of Apple TV, here the Chromebook becomes a "hobby."
However, while Chrome OS has now been set aside for notebooks (and a nettop), there doesn't seem to be anything keeping Android at bay in the very same space -- devices such as the Eee Pad Slider and USB host support demonstrate that Android itself could function in a similar role to Chrome OS. If Android can make significant headway – or at least significantly more headway than Chrome – on the classic clamshell, then this may indeed bring about the ultimate merging of the two operating systems. The result would probably look a lot more like Android, with its flourishing app library, than the sparse Chrome OS, but an Android with an even faster and more powerful desktop-class browser.
Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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