Chrome OS vs. Android 3.0: Which platform will prevail?

Developers have two Google OSes to choose from, but one platform may have an advantage in the long run

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The classic browser view assumes the content will be narrow and users will scroll up and down to see more. That assumption doesn't hold on devices that can switch the screen from landscape to portrait view at the drop of a hat and where users scroll using finger gestures. Rollovers? Hovering help tips? Custom cursors? None of these tools are available when there's no mouse pointer. And intermittent connectivity, coupled with mobile carriers' tiered pricing, makes lightweight UIs a must for mobile devices, in contrast to the rich Web experiences touted by Chrome OS.

Android goes native
A lot of folks don't remember that Steve Jobs initially said the way to create apps for the iPhone would be as Web apps running in the mobile Safari browser. It didn't take long for Apple to admit that wasn't going to cut it and to issue a proper SDK. Today, many of the most popular apps you see in the iTunes Store are purpose-built UIs for individual websites, streamlined to take advantage of the device's smaller screen and native UI widgets. Despite Google's past dismissal of native apps, the Android market is following suit.

Android 3.0 acknowledges this trend by offering a new UI framework aimed at improving user experience on a variety of devices, including a host of redesigned UI widgets and a new way to build modular, multipane UIs. The whole OS is designed from the ground up to support larger screens and more versatile input methods, including USB keyboards.

Another important trend is that chip vendors, ARM and Intel among them, have been steadily improving their mobile offerings by increasing processing speeds and bundling CPU cores with support components, such as GPUs and signal processors. To not take advantage of these components' new features would be a wasted opportunity. Sure enough, Android 3.0 introduces accelerated 2D and 3D graphics and support for multicore processors. Google is working to add similar features to its Chrome browser, but in general Web-based apps don't scale well to take advantage of hardware.

Software plus services redux
What's important to note, though, is that for all Android's advantages, nothing about it precludes the Chrome OS application model, either. Android ships with a browser based on the WebKit rendering engine, the same as Chrome OS. The difference is that while the Chrome OS forces every application into the old-world browser experience -- which has remained essentially unchanged since Netscape 1.1 -- Android allows developers the opportunity to offer users something more, by combining HTML-based content and services with optimized native UIs.

Astute readers will observe that this type of hybrid model is exactly what Microsoft has been touting with its "software plus services" mantra. While Microsoft remains wedded to thick-client applications, however, Google (and Apple) suggest a more lightweight approach, where most of the heavy lifting still happens in the cloud.

Thick client or thin, I think Android's hybrid model will be the real future of software development, and not Chrome OS's browser-centric model. Last week, I lamented that the HTML standard seems to have fallen under the control of the browser vendors. The most unfortunate aspect is the implicit assumption that browsers will be the primary consumers of Web content for the foreseeable future. Efforts such as Tim Berners-Lee's semantic Web strongly suggest that this won't always be the case; the evolution we're seeing in the mobile software market all but proves it.

This article, "Chrome OS vs. Android 3.0: Which platform will prevail?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the latest developments in programming at InfoWorld.com, and for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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