Move over, Android: The future will be Chrome

Android may be just a stopgap operating system for mobile devices until Google gets Chrome OS to work everywhere

A few months ago, Google put the head of its Chrome business, Sundar Pichai, in charge of Android as well. At the time, there was speculation that Android would become more Chrome-like, perhaps even running Chrome apps directly. Eventually, the thinking went, the company would combine them into a single platform.

But Ben Thompson at Stratechery has another interesting theory: Google's long bet is on Chrome. Android was a hedge, and it's becoming a lot less important to the company, particularly for smartphones. From here on, most of Google's platform innovation will happen on Chrome, not Android.

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The most recent bit of evidence for this came at the recent Google event in San Francisco, where the company introduced the new Nexus 7 tablet and the Chromecast, a $35 device for streaming Internet video to a TV set using a mobile device or PC as the remote control. Google also announced Android 4.3, the latest update to "Jelly Bean," but most of the devices featured were tablets, not smartphones, and the most interesting new features -- like restricted user profiles and support for the latest version of the Open Graphics Library for 3D gaming -- make a lot more sense on tablets.

To Thompson's points, I'd add that the fact that it's called the Chromecast, rather than (say) the Android TV Slinger, is a strong indication of the platform direction Google's taking.

Android is perfectly capable of running in low-powered, wireless-connected, embedded devices; in fact, a couple years ago at Google I/O, the company unveiled a whole initiative designed to push Android into embedded devices and home automation. But when it was time to create this type of device itself, Google based it on a simplified version of Chrome instead. Under the Chrome OS name, Chrome is an embedded, Linux-based operating system, but under the Chrome name it's also a browser that runs on almost every platform. Cross-platform wins.

Horizontal, not vertical
Thompson reasons that Google is now clearly focused on horizontal markets. Like Microsoft before it, Google wants its products to reach as many users as possible, and it does not particularly care about providing an integrated end-to-end experience. Microsoft wanted to sell operating systems and applications software; Google wants to sell advertising against services that are free to users. It's the opposite approach from Apple, which wants to sell hardware with integrated software and services.

If so, Chrome is the obvious choice to take Google forward. It's cross-platform, which means it reaches the largest number of people. It's entirely Web-based, which matches Google's business goal of keeping users on the Web for as long as possible, where Google can collect data about them and target ads to them.

Maybe -- around the time that the Android team was made to report to Chrome's leader, I also heard speculation from people close to the company that Google wanted a way to bring hardware advances that it discovered or acquired to market. The company had recently put co-founder Sergey Brin in charge of special projects, including consumer electronics gear, at the Google X skunkworks division.

What would happen if Google X created a quantum-leap advance in something like battery life? Or digital camera processing? Its Motorola Mobility acquisition would give Google a way to bring this technology to market fairly quickly, without having to outsource the hardware design to a partner (like Samsung, HTC, or Asus, which make the Nexus-branded devices for Google) that could then learn from and mimic Google's technology.

Motorola Mobility is an affordable expense for Google, especially when you factor in the value of its patents. And who knows? Google may yet become a top-tier smartphone manufacturer, which would give it even more leverage to push its services into mobile and crack the mobile ad market.

This story, "Move over, Android: The future will be Chrome," was originally published at CITEworld.

This story, "Move over, Android: The future will be Chrome" was originally published by CITEworld.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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