Google’s Mixed Message On The Future Of Mobile Computing

Google I-O 2011

You had to attend both days of *Google* I/O to get the full effect: having been present for just one of the two visions of mobile computing detailed by Google (NSDQ: GOOG) this week would have left you with the impression that the project you witnessed was the company’s brightest star. Instead, the combined presentations left as many questions as answers and seemed the work of two isolated groups within Google: one laser-focused on the pragmatic world of mobile computing today, the other trying to change the conversation entirely based on a dream.

Android and Chrome OS are very different concepts, and whether by design or by circumstance they were each competing for the hearts and minds of the over 5,000 developers assembled in San Francisco this week for Google I/O, the company’s annual conference. Over two days, Google engineers delivered separate impressive pitches for why developers should embrace each mobile platform.

In Android’s case, Google pointed out not only how many mobile devices are already running Android (100 million), but the possibility that all kinds of other devices, such as home appliances and exercise bikes, could be part of a software developer’s arsenal. Chrome OS was billed as the answer to cross-platform frustration, and it even tweaked its Android colleagues with the announcement that in-app purchases would only be taxed at a 5 percent rate, compared to the 30 percent rate that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Android take as a fee for hosting their in-app payment processing systems.

In short, the entire mobile app versus mobile Web debate is playing out within one company. At the moment it’s not necessarily hard to figure out which product best suits your needs: just pick whatever form factor best suits your application. Want to target phones and tablets? Android is your robot. Want to tap into the traditional computer experience while avoiding Windows or the Map App Store? Chrome OS could be very intriguing.

The problem is that Google is asking the mobile industry to make bets in 2011 that could have long-reaching effects on their businesses for years to come. And it’s hard to believe that at some point, Google won’t converge its two projects or at least pick a winner. What then happens to the growing base of Android developers and applications, the product of millions of dollars of investment? What happens to all of Google’s bets that the Web itself is the application platform for the next 20 years?

A few things are clear beyond the different devices targeted by each approach. Android is the option for now, for developers who want to target a big audience with apps on proven devices. Chrome OS if the option for the future, and Web developers who want to show they can create experiences just as compelling as iOS or Android applications are likely to embrace Chrome OS. After all, if Angry Birds can be made just as good on Chrome OS as it is on IOS or Android (something a single controlled on-stage demo does not prove, to be clear), then it’s fair to say the Chrome OS team can attract more big-name developers.

The other thing that’s clear is that Google has the luxury of simply letting this all play out without having to worry about its bottom line. Both Android and Chrome accrue huge benefits to Google because of the data they produce and the Web activity they generate, and Chrome the browser project isn’t going anywhere no matter what happens with Chrome OS. Contrast that with Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), which is losing hundreds of millions of dollars a quarter trying to jump-start both a mobile operating system and a Web business and just added another iffy profit center with an $8 billion purchase of Skype.

At some point, however, Google is going to have to refine this mixed message. Both Android and Chrome OS are examples of what Apple CEO Steve Jobs calls “the post-PC era,” computing platforms designed for modern needs without having to support nearly 30 years of legacy technology. Both are compelling on their own merit. Yet they represent competing visions: native mobile applications versus Web development. Relationships with partners free to put their own stamp on the software versus a much more tightly integrated Google-driven user interface. Android wants to expand beyond phones and tablets at the same time Chrome OS engineers have toyed with the idea of Chrome OS tablets, despite Chrome OS chief Sundar Pichai’s denials that such products are in the works.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. When pressed in public, Googlers on both sides of the Android and Chrome OS divide insist they aren’t in competition with each other, and that the world is big enough for both projects. That’s probably true today, in mid-2011, with Chromebooks having yet to hit stores.

But as years pass by and the stakes grow higher, it will be harder for it to remain true. And the worst-case outcome of Google’s lassiez-faire approach to mobile product development-from Google’s perspective, anyway–could be that mobile developers embrace the uncomplicated answer: iOS.

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