Chrome OS and Android: There can be only one

By Nathaniel Mott , written on November 26, 2012

From The News Desk

This morning, in the midst of false news (from Aruba!) that ICOA had been acquired by Google, the China Times reported that the Mountain View-based company is set to release a new, touch-screen equipped laptop. The device, which is said to be manufactured by Compal and will carry Google's branding, will utilize the company's Chrome OS, a lackluster amalgamation of a Web browser and operating system.

Put another way: Google is bypassing its perfectly-adequate hardware division and glossing over the world's most popular mobile operating system to release one of its few self-branded products.

The first bit isn't all that surprising. John Lagerling, the director of business development for Android, all but confirmed that Motorola Mobility is the barely-tolerated black sheep in the Google family. It will forever exist in the shadow of Google's hardware partners. Motorola Mobility – or, to be specific, its patent portfolio – is meant to act as Google's suit of armor in its hardware efforts, not a sword.

What is surprising is Google's continuing negligence of Android. As mentioned above, the mobile-operating-system-that-could has the highest marketshare around the globe, dwarfing competitors like Microsoft, RIM, and, to a lesser extent, Apple. While Android hasn't always been the most beautiful beast, the last few years have been kind to the operating system as it continues to mature. Facebook is bullish enough on the operating system that it asked employees to eat the "droidfood," which, besides being a little unsettling, emphasizes the popularity of the platform.

Part of Android's beauty – and its curse – is its ability to be adapt to any form factor. Everything from the itty-bitty phones of old to the 4-inch "phablets" and proper tablets utilize the operating system, and it has become the platform of choice for many manufacturers. So why, then, does Google keep Chrome OS around?

Android already powers much of Google's push into operating systems, with Google describing it as "an open platform built for phones, tablets, and televisions." (We'll let the "open" bit stand for a moment.) Imagine explaining that Android powers those devices but not computers. One has to wonder how, in the progression from phones to televisions, computers managed to never come up as a topic of discussion.

Google's Eric Schmidt, while he was still CEO, said that Chrome OS is meant for keyboard-equipped devices while Android is meant for touch-screen devices, so this discrepancy has existed for at least two years. In that time, Chrome OS has evolved from a glorified Web browser into an operating system that apes Windows and OS X and happens to rely on Web apps.

As this "we were wrong, people aren't ready to live in their browsers full-time" -ification of Chrome OS progresses, Google's insistence on sticking with the operating system instead of Android becomes increasingly opaque. Citing the difference between a laptop and a touch-screen device – namely, the method of interacting with the device's software – is almost moot, considering Android's fragmented past. Developers are already tasked with supporting (or neglecting) everything from a tiny phone to a smart TV; what's one more device?

The argument becomes especially problematic with this rumored device's touch-screen. Will users be asked to swipe through their desktop as they are with touch-screen enabled Windows 8 PCs, or will Google build a "convertible" (or whatever it wants to call it) device that can morph between laptop and tablet? Neither option is particularly appealing, but the latter sounds like a nightmare.

Perhaps the most damning evidence against this non-touch-optimized approach comes from columnist and PandoDaily investor MG Siegler's review of Microsoft's Surface tablet. Siegler writes:

Desktop mode (or the Desktop app, if you prefer) is a cruel joke. It’s the same old Windows of decades past that you’re used to (well, minus the Start button itself), but it’s on a touchscreen device. And while some of the UI has been updated to make it more touch-friendly, a lot of it has not been well, touched. I’ve never had more mis-clicks, accidental closings, and all-around frustration with a computer. Ever.
Replace "Windows" with "Chrome OS" and "decades" with "years" and this paragraph could appear in a review of this Chrome OS device if or when it gets released next year. There's a reason why Apple has kept OS X and iOS separate, and it's that using a legacy or desktop-centric user interface on a touch device is to computing as child-safety locks are to everyday life: It's frustrating, non-sensical, and it just feels wrong.

Android, on the other hand, wouldn't have this issue. While it would be frustrating to use the device until developers update their applications for a mouse-based interface, if Google were to do nothing but prepare its Apps suite (think Gmail, Google Drive, Calendar, etc.) and the Chrome browser the device would already match Chrome OS' capabilities. Give out a couple thousand of the things at the annual I/O conference, otherwise known as a Google developer porn-fest, and you've got yourself a slice of fried gold.

Unfortunately, whether or not this happens remains to be seen. Google has stuck it through with Chrome OS for the last two years, even as it left its browser-in-a-box origins behind, and it seems to have committed to the operating system for the near future. No matter how popular or refined Android gets.