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Switched On: Chrome's shine could blind Android


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Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

It's been a year of milestones for Android in the U.S. The number of handsets with the Google-developed software has grown from one to eight. Three of the four major national carriers, including Verizon Wireless, the country's largest, now offer Android phones. HTC's Hero and Motorola's CLIQ have shown how Android supports customization by manufacturers. And the Motorola Droid has marked the debut of Android 2.0.

When the T-Mobile G1 was launched, Switched On discussed Google's growing rivalry with Apple. But now Google itself an even more formidable threat to the Android than Apple or even Microsoft. Growing out of the group that created the Chrome browser, Google's Chrome OS creates a relatively lightweight layer of hardware management code primarily for the purpose of running one native app, the Chrome browser. While Chrome OS can take advantage of local processing and resources, the OS foregoes local applications, citing a need to preserve speed, security and simplicity.

That argument resembles one Apple made in the early days of the iPhone with web apps before it committed to releasing an SDK and launched the App Store -- a reversal that's created one the most vibrant mobile software ecosystems ever seen. And unlike iPhone apps, Android apps can operate in the background. Indeed, Android's multitasking, alerts, and upgrade notifications are among the most elegant in the industry; clearly the OS development team has put a lot of thought into how to deliver the benefits of local applications in the stringent smartphone environment.

So, should developers invest in local apps for Android or is the future Web apps delivered via the Chrome browser? The mixed message Google is giving developers with

It would be a shame for Android developers and users if its path were derailed by a browser that has developed megalomania.

Chrome OS and Android smacks of the worst kind of corporate infighting and politics where the left hand not is not only unaware of what the right hand is doing, but is also competing with it. Google postulates noncommittally that Android and Chrome OS may merge at some point, but they are unlikely to do so via entropy. Just ask Microsoft, which spent a decade trying to marry the user interface and hardware support of its consumer Windows products (95, 98) with the plumbing of its enterprise Windows versions (NT, 2000).

More seriously, the treatment of desktop and handset platforms as two disparate opportunities that have contradictory app strategies runs counter to the marketplace success that Apple has had with a unified OS X foundation running on Macs and iPhones. Even Microsoft, which has struggled to create the richness of mobile applications that it has on the PC desktop, strives to leverage developer knowledge with common development tools for Windows and Windows Mobile. Nokia, which once relegated Maemo for being fit for "PC-like" mobile experiences, is now more seriously considering integrating the Linux-based OS more deeply into its smartphone offerings. This is because handsets have finally become contextual mobile computers -- Android itself is evidence of that.

And if we can trust and enrich these omnipresent epicenters of our digital lives with third-party applications, we should certainly be able to manage apps on some tertiary PC companion. In the high-stakes competitive environment in which Android competes, developers deserve to know that sponsoring organizations believe in the value of third-party applications that engage the user with appropriate user interfaces and offline functionality. It would be a shame for Android developers and users if its path were derailed by a browser that has developed megalomania.

Ross Rubin is 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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