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Android, Chrome May Become Single OS: Rumor Mill

Even if Google ends up ditching Chrome OS as a brand, it seems unlikely that marrying into Android will erase its identity or market niche. The appeal of a sandboxed, manageable computing platform will not go away.
Office 2016: 8 Enterprise-Worthy Features
Office 2016: 8 Enterprise-Worthy Features
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Google is said to be preparing to unify the Android and Chrome operating systems into a single OS in 2017, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. But Hiroshi Lockheimer, head of Android, Chrome OS, and Chromecast, has implied otherwise.

"There's a ton of momentum for Chromebooks, and we are very committed to Chrome OS," said Lockheimer in a tweet. "I just bought two for my kids for schoolwork!"

Google declined to comment. But there's reason to believe the Wall Street Journal has overstated the extent of the union, including this comment posted by Google+ chief architect Yonatan Zunger: "I was wondering WTF was going on there [with the WSJ report], since I would think I would have heard about it before if something this big were going down."

The convergence of Google's mobile and Web-based operating systems has long been a subject of speculation, as it has for Apple, which maintains separate but related mobile and desktop operating systems.

[ Which option is right for you? Read HTML 5 Vs. Native Apps: What's Best For Developers. ]

But the Wall Street Journal's account, based on two unnamed sources, claimed Google will "fold" Chrome OS into Android. This represents the opposite of what Google has been doing, enabling Android apps to run on Chromebooks.

Last year, Google released software called App Runtime for Chrome that allowed Android apps to run on Chrome OS hardware. This addressed one of the principal shortcomings of the Chrome platform -- lack of popular apps.

The possibility that Google might subsume Chrome OS into Android has left computer security experts concerned that a unified operating system will trade security for popularity. Chromebooks have become popular in schools because they're affordable and easy to manage, in part because of their hardened security.

According to Google's total cost of ownership calculator, the cost of Chrome hardware over three years for a 100-person organization is $107,200, compared to $621,300 for Windows PC. Microsoft, presumably, would arrive at a different set of figures.

One reason Chrome devices are easy to manage is that they're sandboxed and thus protected from much of the damage that can be done by malicious code. Chromebooks don't need to be purged of viruses and re-imaged, a frequent ritual among Windows admins. Android, on the other hand, faces malware risks similar to other popular operating systems. Android may have a poor reputation for security, but that's largely a consequence of Google's Android partners.

What Android lacks is an effective mechanism to send security updates to every device. As a recent University of Cambridge study (partially funded by Google) noted, "The security of Android depends on the timely delivery of updates to fix critical vulnerabilities. Unfortunately few devices receive prompt updates, with an overall average of 1.26 updates per year, leaving devices unpatched for long periods."

Even if Google ends up ditching Chrome OS as a brand, it seems unlikely that marrying into Android will erase its identity or market niche. The appeal of a sandboxed, manageable computing platform will not go away.

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If Google is pursuing a unified operating system, it may actually be an attempt to turn Android into a universal runtime. Developer Vlad Filippov has already adapted App Runtime for Chrome to be a runtime for other operating systems that support the Chrome browser such as Linux, OS X, and Windows. His project allows Android apps to run on other operating systems, with limitations. Google could be pursuing something similar, with Android as a universal development platform.

That possibility also exists for Apple's Swift programming language, which, once open-sourced, could evolve to allow Swift apps, via the LLVM compiler, to be built for Android devices. Apple, with its antipathy toward cross-platform development, presumably wouldn't pursue this. But the company might support, or at least tolerate, open-source efforts along these lines to keep developers from drifting into Android's orbit.

Shift In Priorities

Google tipped its hand when it announced its Android-based Pixel C tablet in late September. Its two previous Pixel notebooks ran Chrome OS. The Pixel C demonstrates that Google has made Android its priority. It's a move that makes sense given Android's global popularity.

Perhaps Chrome OS, under a new name like Android Limited, will become a library like Android Auto, Android TV, or Android Wear, offering a restricted feature set for greater security and maintainability. Or Google could be trying to simplify the management of the two operating systems by making them share more plumbing and conventions such as keyboard shortcuts. Android and Chrome OS could converge without becoming one.

The possibility of Android-Chrome OS unification invites a question: Will Java remain the preferred development language? Oracle prevailed in its lawsuit over Google's use of copyrighted Java APIs in Android when the Supreme Court earlier this year refused to hear Google's appeal. Google could avoid liability if its fair-use claim is accepted, but there's a chance Google may have to accept disadvantageous licensing terms from Oracle.

Whether this might affect the viability of Java for Android development remains to seen -- Google's decision to replace Android's Dalvik virtual machine with ART resolved some issues -- but an unfavorable outcome in the Oracle case could push Google to focus on its Go programming language as the preferred way to write Android apps. Doing so might make Android more appealing to developers, as Apple's switch from Objective-C to Swift has done for its platforms.

With Lockheimer suggesting that Chrome OS will remain in some form, we will have to wait -- probably until Google I/O 2016 -- for clarification on the Android master plan.