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3/21/2013
03:45 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Android, Chrome OS Marriage Denied

But Google's word on the matter may be subject to change.

Google Chromebook Pixel: Visual Tour
Google Chromebook Pixel: Visual Tour
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Google's decision to put Android and Chrome OS under one manager does not mean the two operating systems will be married.

Android and Chrome OS, will "remain separate for a very, very long time," although they will overlap more than they do presently, said Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt at the company's Google Big Tent Activate Summit 2013 in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday.

However, Schmidt's assurance might not be the last word on the subject, given past statements about operating system unification.

A week ago, Google CEO Larry Page announced that Andy Rubin has decided to relinquish his oversight of Android to pursue other opportunities at the company and that Sundar Pichai, senior VP of Chrome and Apps, will assume responsibility for Android.

[ It's not wise to get too attached to some Google products. Read Google Keep Arrives, But For How Long? ]

The executive shuffle revived longstanding speculation about whether Google will unify Android and Chrome OS into a single product.

The possibility of a merger has been discussed at least since late 2009 when Google first made Chrome OS code available to developers. No less than Google co-founder Sergey Brin said at the time, "Android and Chrome will likely converge over time."

Since then, others with some knowledge of the technology at issue have continued to believe that unification of the two operating systems was inevitable. For example, Paul Buchheit, who helped create Gmail before leaving Google, opined in late 2010 that Chrome OS would either perish or be folded into Android.

Although Buchheit's obituary for Chrome OS proved premature, his reasoning, explained in greater length in a blog post, bears further examination. He said that Android would gain the benefits of Chrome OS, such as security and the ability to start rapidly, the implication being that convergence will make Chrome OS redundant.

In other words, Chrome OS is doomed because it offers a subset of what Android offers.

"Once Android has all the benefits of ChromeOS, the most obvious difference will be that ChromeOS lacks the thousands of native apps which are popular on Android," he wrote. "Android apps are closer to Web apps than Windows apps in terms of security and manageability, so eliminating them doesn't seem like much of an advantage for ChromeOS."

But Google won't eliminate Android apps or drop Chrome OS. It will add an Android app compatibility layer to Chrome OS. Buchheit observed then that the obvious difference between Chrome OS and Android is that Chrome relied on mouse or trackpad interaction and Android relied on touchscreen interaction. That distinction has disappeared. Chrome OS now supports touchscreen interaction, as can be seen in Google's recently introduced Chromebook Pixel. Chrome OS and Android are already closer together than they once were.

The question is whether that convergence will continue and how far it will go. Much of the speculation on the topic assumes that Chrome OS will be thrown under the bus because it's so much less popular than Android. But Chrome OS would be a lot more popular if it could run Android apps.

If you want a picture of Google's future, look at BlueStacks, a company that offers a way to run Android apps on a Mac or PC. By implementing something similar -- probably using its Native Client technology -- Google could provide Chrome OS users with access to the Android app ecosystem while retaining the security benefits and cloud favoritism of its browser-based operating system.

That's why Sundar Pichai, the man in charge of Chrome OS, is now overseeing Android.

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