Android Has Won — Time for Chrome OS to Move Along?

Google with its annual developer conference, Google I/O, dominated the technology conversation last week. Whether it was taking jabs at Apple, launching a competitor to H.264 video technology or simply offering its own version of Amazon S3, the Big G didn’t disappoint its fans (though some remain skeptical of certain initiatives, such as Google TV).

All that hoopla aside, the focus of the conference was Google’s Android OS and the mobile ecosystem it’s spawned. Add Google TV to the mix and it’s safe to say that Google devoted nearly a quarter of its stage and talk time to Android. CEO Eric Schmidt, VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra and the co-founder of the Android movement himself, Andy Rubin — all waxed eloquent about the OS. Chrome, meanwhile, appeared to have become little more than an afterthought for the company.

Android’s Adaptability

Yes Google held a press conference where co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin talked up the Chrome Web Store, but that was pretty much it. That’s because while Chrome is still waiting for its day in the sun, Android has taken on a life of its own. By the time the Chrome OS becomes available via devices on store shelves, who knows where Android will be.

Just look at some of the most recent Android-specific stats:

  • 100,000 Android-based phones are activated every day.
  • It’s on 60 devices from 21 OEM makers on 59 carriers in 48 countries.
  • There are 50,000 apps in the Android Market Place.
  • In the first quarter of the year, it was the second-best selling smartphone OS after RIM’s BlackBerry in the U.S.

“I am delighted to see Android in places I didn’t expect to see it in,” Rubin said at Google I/O. A good example is Google TV — which is comprised of Android running off an Intel x86 processor with a browser on top of it. Indeed, as I wrote at the time of Android’s launch, what makes it special is its adaptability. From e-readers to set-top boxes to cars to even refrigerators, the OS has shown tremendous adaptability. By offering it for free (with some strings attached), Google has made it possible for all sorts of hardware makers to tinker with it.

And as such it makes perfect sense for Google to marshal all its resources behind Android the way Apple has done with the iPhone OS. But what of Chrome?

Chrome’s Tablet Future?

“Android has evolved over the past four years and Chrome OS hasn’t launched just yet, so it’s an unfair comparison,” Rubin said in response to a question at last week’s conference in which he was asked to do just that. I took his comment to mean that Google was purposefully following a dual strategy, and when I asked why, Gundotra candidly admitted it’s a strategy the company may adjust down the road — specifically, that there may be a way for the two technologies to converge.

Now that would make sense in a touch-centric, tablet-based world. Imagine Android running the Chrome browser in order to offer a panoply of web apps via the web-based app store that co-founder Sergey Brin described at Google I/O. Though when veteran scribe Dan Gillmor asked about an Android Tablet, both Rubin and Gundotra dodged the question.

Our own Kevin Tofel thinks one of the reasons Chrome OS is taking a back seat to Android may be hardware-related. After all, Chrome OS was initially introduced as a platform for the netbook form factor, but if the market is shifting to tablets, Google will have to make some significant changes to it in order to make it finger-friendly.

Folks in the know tell me that Google bought Canadian user interface innovator BumpTop so that it can build a unique user interface on top of Android for Google’s GPad, which could offered to hardware makers as reference design. That could be just what Android needs in order to compete with Apple and its iPad in the tablet space.

I’ve long been wary of Chrome OS because I think it would suffer from Google-itis in that its underpinning would be the company’s identification system and would always prefer Google web apps. And given that Google doesn’t have a presence in the social web, it would lack social sense and sensibility.

For comparison, look at the JoliCloud OS, which is completely socially aware and uses Facebook Connect as a way to bridge various components with a user’s social graph. That’s what a modern OS for cloud clients should look like.

Now don’t get me wrong — I don’t want to hate on Chrome OS. I just think Google needs to pick a winning horse. And the winner here is clearly Android.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com

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