Andy Rubin, the driving force behind Google’s Android mobile software, is moving on to new projects. Despite having risen to become the world’s leading mobile operating system since its 2008 debut, the move signals that Android is nearing an evolutionary peak. Now that Sundar Pichai is taking over Android efforts at Google, we might see what I had expected last year: A merger of sorts between Android apps and Google’s Chrome OS.
It makes more sense now
It’s really not a leap to make this early conclusion as Pichai has led or been heavily involved with the product management for Google Drive, the Chrome browser and of course, Google’s Chrome OS used on the company’s Chromebooks. His Google+ profile says he’s currently the Senior Vice President, Chrome and Apps.
That’s part of the puzzle, but one only needs to look at the touchscreen on Google’s new Chromebook Pixel with high-definition display to start putting the pieces together.
I barely use the touchscreen on the Pixel for web surfing but I would use it for touch-optimized applications. Here’s what I said when the Pixel was launched:
“What would be an added benefit is taking advantage of that touchscreen with applications. If Google were to add support for the Dalvik VM where Android apps run, the Pixel makes a little more sense to me as a product. Frankly, we don’t need touch on the web for a laptop form factor when multi-gesture trackpads replicate the experience more ergonomically. But if the touchscreen were leveraged for more use cases, that could add value.”
Support for Android apps on a touchscreen Chromebook would immediately squelch one of the biggest complaints about Chrome OS devices. Criticism such as “it’s just a browser,” is a common theme from Chrome OS detractors. Adding support for hundreds of thousands of Android apps removes that complaint.
A new way to expand the Android ecosystem
I still believe that if Android support in Chrome OS pans out that Google will still push both web apps and more touch features for the web. This isn’t an either/or strategy for Google; it’s a way to expand internet use in as many ways as possible, which has the potential to generate more impressions and clicks on the ads that pay Google’s bills.
A unification of Chrome and Android isn’t going to be a quick slam-dunk for Google even with Pichai leading the effort. Android is clearly meant for touch screens and there are relatively few laptops with this functionality, although there are a growing number of choices. Any use of Android apps with a mouse will lessen the experience and if this does happen, Android detractors will have something else to point out.
What are the challenges?
Technically, however, I can’t see it too difficult to make the two platforms work together; particularly on Chrome OS devices. These actually already run on a Linux kernel with the browser atop that. Adding a virtual machine or other method to run Android apps on Chrome OS devices should be relatively easy as a result.
As far as Android in the Chrome browser on other platforms? That’s more challenging, but I’m not sold on Google even doing that; I’d expect Chrome OS to be the main focus of any Android unification, which would provide Chromebooks with a feature that no other devices have.
The bigger challenge may in regards to branding. Android apps are typically relegated to smartphones and tablets while Chrome OS is a desktop software solution. Sure, Google has the Chrome browser for Android and iOS, but there seems to be little confusion there. Android apps on a Chromebook though? Do we call them DroidBooks at that point? I suspect we’ll find out in mid-May at Google’s I/O developer event.