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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…

Google I-O 2011
photo: Tom Krazit

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.

  1. Why can Apple have iOS and OSX and Microsoft have Win7 and WP7, but Google cannot have a mobile operating system and a desktop operating system? While Android and ChromeOS represent two different computing paradigms they are no more in competition with each other than iOS is with OSX. The laptop and desktop spaces are still different from their cellular and tablet cousins and deserve an OS that is better suited to their strengths.

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    1. Staci D. Kramer Thursday, May 12, 2011

      One of the big differences is Apple and Microsoft already had a legacy
      OS before they went mobile. Google likes to experiment in different
      directions but its lack of legacy OS also gave it a great opportunity
      to build something completely different.

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  2. Web vs App really also means addressing the Total Cost of Ownership vs Short Term Mobile strategy is probably one of the most complicated issues today – especially with the pressure and perception issues of being pitched internally and externally by agencies.

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  3. The thing about Chrome OS is that it actually feels like something from Google.

    Android, despite it’s freeness and obvious tie in to Google’s products (like Gmail) has never felt like a true Google product. That’s partly the large number of tweaks each handset maker has makes to the actual phones but even the fully Google Nexus versions have a completely different look and feel when compared to everything else Google has ever made. And Android to this day can’t fully utilize many Google products like Google Docs. I know, I know it works, sort of.

    Chrome OS feels like the google the moment you look at it. And it was obviously designed with web applications (a core strength of Google) in mind. In fact even offline applications are actually web applications. It’s a great idea.

    But there’s no denying that the team working on Chrome OS and the team working on Android are in a competition of sorts.

    The apple description doesn’t really work, since most of the people who work on iOS are the same people who work on OS X.

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  4. You forgot the enterprise. Chrome OS could be huge for small and medium businesses. Many developers are already considering web app, it’s simply a wider trend, it didn’t start with Google. with the 5% fee, Google just provides you with a little more incentive to give web app a try.

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