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Is Google bringing Android and Chrome OS together?

People have been wondering for a while now whether it really makes sense for Google to have two separate operating systems. There are signs that Chrome and Android are getting closer. What is Google up to and how far can it go?

Published onApril 6, 2015

Is Google bringing Android and Chrome OS together? In a word – yes, but maybe not in the way you think.

The speculation about Google merging Chrome OS and Android has been a constant over the last few years. Why does Google have two separate systems when everyone else is merging? Why doesn’t Chrome just get folded into Android? Google has to kill one of them off. It’s odd that the tech world insists on Highlander rules – there can be only one. But the truth is that Google can bring them closer and closer together, and create a seamless experience for us, and it doesn’t need one to assimilate the other in order to do that.

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Chrome OS is here to stay

People have strong opinions about Chrome OS, though a lot of them have never actually tried working on a Chromebook. Ever since it was first announced, back in 2009, commentators started queuing up to proclaim it dead on arrival. There have been plenty of assertions about its failure since then. They all suppose that Chrome OS is designed to replace Windows, but it doesn’t have to beat Windows across the market.

Regardless of whether it has met expectations, Google is committed to Chrome OS

According to NPD data, via Betanews, Chromebooks accounted for 14 percent of laptop sales in the U.S. last year, up from 8 percent in 2013, and that figure is still rising. When you consider how cheap Chromebooks are compared to the competition, and how well-suited they are to education, it’s inevitable that Chrome will continue to grow. It only looks like a failure because people use the dominant OS as a yardstick. You can argue about its relative merits (low prices, speed, no updates) and weaknesses (offline, heavy lifting, photo editing), but it is a very good fit for a specific audience and it is still improving.

Regardless of whether it has met expectations, Google is committed to it, as evidenced by the recent Chromebit unveiling alongside four budget-friendly Chromebooks, and not long after the new Chromebook Pixel.

If Chrome OS isn’t going anywhere, then is it on a collision-course with Android? Shortly after the Chrome OS announcement, back in 2009, Sergey Brin said, “Android and Chrome will likely converge over time,” but what did he mean by that?

Android and Chrome converging

Chrome OS is looking more and more "Android-like" with each update.
Chrome OS is looking more and more “Android-like” with each update.

Talking about the recent Chrome releases to Forbes,Google’s VP of product management for Chromebook, Caesar Sengupta, said something very telling:

“From a user’s perspective, it doesn’t matter what code is running underneath, Android and Chrome originated in different places. We’ve tried to bring the teams together.”

What we’re actually seeing is an increasingly common aesthetic for the interface, and even more so with the current beta version of Chrome OS. We’re getting Google Now cards whatever device we’re on. Google is making it as easy as possible to get Android apps running in Chrome and Chrome OS apps running on Android. There’s even a new tool that makes it easier for developers to test out their Android apps on Chrome OS devices. The fact Google has folded Chrome tabs into your multitasking menu on Android is worth noting here, too.

There’s even added value for people who use both devices, through handy features like easy unlock, which will unlock your Chromebook when your Android phone is within range. We’re also going to see Android notifications on Chromebooks, so you get phone and text pop-ups or warnings that your phone needs charged on your desktop.

However, none of this means that Android will replace Chrome OS or vice versa.

Why would it be Android anyway?

A lot of people assume that, if it was to merge, then Chrome OS would disappear into Android. This is mostly because Android is so successful. It’s already on the majority of mobile devices, what does Chrome OS offer that Android doesn’t? Actually, given Google’s focus on the Internet, Chrome OS would be preferable. It may not have the same level of apps (yet), but it also doesn’t suffer from fragmentation. It’s simple, it’s very fast, it’s secure, and Google is firmly in control.

But the truth is that Google doesn’t have to choose. If the future for a lot of apps is browser-based, and it looks like it is, then all that really matters is support for the browser. Maybe Chrome OS eventually wins out, when web apps are good enough, maybe web apps never get good enough and it fades quietly away. Developers will probably determine what happens there.

What looks increasingly likely is that the Chrome browser will be the heart of Google’s offerings. It’s the glue that ties your Google services together and enables you to share across devices. The more Google can put in the browser, the less the underlying platform matters.

What is Google really up to?

Where is the burning need to officially merge Chrome OS and Android? There simply isn’t one.

Ultimately, Google is doing the same thing it always does – it wants as many people as possible to use its services online. It’s not trying to make money by selling you hardware or software, at least not primarily. They are a means to an end, which is why Google wants to hit the budget end of the market so hard. It wants to make sure newcomers are using Google services.

It also doesn’t want to “win” a platform war. It already makes its services available on competing platforms. Android and Chrome OS are about reaching new customers first and having the control to offer a better experience second, but as long as you’re using Google services, it doesn’t really care what devices you’re using.

It makes sense to offer a unified experience where you can share your online world across devices as seamlessly as possible. It makes sense to have a single sign-in and account that goes across all your different devices, and even platforms, tied together by the Chrome browser. If Google can present that seamless experience, regardless of the device you’re on, then it’s done its job. Who cares what code runs beneath, as long as it works?

Where is the burning need to officially merge Chrome OS and Android? There simply isn’t one.