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Android and Chrome on path to convergence?

The convergence of Google’s two operating systems, Android and Chrome OS, has been on the cards for at least a year. The platform providers need to enable developers to target every kind of mobile and post-PC device with a single set of tools and applications, as users increasingly switch between large screens and small screens, keyboards and touch inputs, within the same service. So reports that Google is planning a single OS at some point in 2016 make a lot of sense.

Insider sources told The Wall Street Journal that the single OS would be previewed in 2016, presumably at the annual I/O developer event, and would appear on commercial products in 2017, though the Chrome browser would remain a separate development.

Google responded in a blog post a few days after the reports, saying that Chrome OS would not be “folded into Android”. It continued: “While we’ve been working on ways to bring together the best of both operating systems, there’s no plan to phase out Chrome OS.”

This doesn’t really rule out an eventual merger, only a complete takeover of Chrome by Android. Google might go a similar way to Microsoft, whose ‘universal apps’ bring together different flavors of the supposedly homogeneous Windows 10. In time, the differences between those flavors are likely to disappear at most levels.

Hints to that effect were dropped by Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and now executive chairman of its parent company Alphabet, who fuelled the fires of speculation with comments at the TechCrunch Beijing summit this week. “Technology can move forward where it’s possible you can wrap one into the other,” he said.

While not saying that the two OSs would merge, he said it would become far easier to integrate Android, Chrome OS and HTML5 environments with new technology advances. “I think the distinctions that are so hardcoded today are allowed to become less hardcoded,” he said, adding that, as the distinction between the two platforms becomes smaller, the software would be able to address a larger audience.

Google is not the only one thinking this way, and looking to harness new development technologies to reach out to a broader base of users and apps.

Microsoft has its ‘unified’ Windows 10, and even Apple is creating more links between its Mac and iOS systems – while fervently denying any plans for full convergence. “We don’t believe in having one operating system for PC and mobile … these operating systems do different things,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at a recent conference.

But the point is that PCs and mobiles no longer do different things – and in some cases are becoming indistinguishable from one another – so there is all kinds of logic to creating development platforms that support flexible apps, capable of adjusting intelligently to different screen sizes and user interfaces, transparently to the end user.

This could be the aim at Google, as it seeks to ensure that its operating systems, and therefore its apps and services, remain dominant in a new generation of devices. This will be especially urgent for Chrome OS, since the big attraction of the Chromebook, its low cost, is being matched by full-scale PCs now. The Linux-based OS is moving into a broader device base, turning up everywhere from the Chromecast video streaming dongle to the CoreOS container system for efficient cloud services.

But adding Android’s huge apps base and mobile functionality would create an OS that really could reach into every corner of web usage, if Google really could pull off the significant technical feat of converging its offerings without ending up with a lowest common denominator.

The first significant indications of possible convergence were seen at the I/O event in June 2014, though co-founder Sergey Brin had hinted, as far back as 2009, that it might be better, eventually, to have just one OS. Since 2014, other signs have been spotted – a tablet/PC hybrid running Android rather than Chrome, for instance; and the introduction of Android apps to Chromebooks and even Chromecast; and at this year’s I/O, the reverse trick – allowing Chrome web apps to run on Android devices. In a mirror of Apple’s iPhone-centric universe, Google has increasingly been allowing Chromebooks and other products to receive updates from – and be controlled by – Android smartphones.

When Chrome OS first launched, there was much confusion over Google’s ‘two mobile operating systems’. Then the newer platform faded into the shadows somewhat, as it struggled to find its positioning – early devices were too low powered to be PC alternatives, and not quite cheap enough to be thin net appliances, as they should be within the Google vision of an entirely web-driven product with all its data, services and updates streamed from the cloud and handled in the browser.

That approach was ahead of its time still, even though it had first been mooted by Oracle and Sun back in 1997 with their ‘network computer’ concept. However, streamed content, HTML5 platforms and web apps are finally in the mainstream and the cost and control advantages for enterprises have given Chromebooks their foothold, especially the genuinely PC-alternative Pixel model.

Google has been wise not to converge the two OSs entirely to date, but to let them do what they are good at so it can serve large and small screens (and no-screens); native and web apps; different vertical segments, without too many trade-offs. But it has certainly been gradually building more bridges between the two platforms, in order to attack Windows in a pincer movement

Sundar Pichai, now CEO of Google since its restructuring as the main subsidiary of Alphabet, has been an important eminence grise behind convergence. Before his recent elevation, he was senior VP of Android, Chrome and apps, and said back in I/O 2014 that he was looking to bridge the gap between Chrome laptops and Android mobile devices, and make app and data exchange seamless.

At the time he denied that full merger was on the cards and said: “We embrace both and we are continuing to invest in both. So in the short run, nothing changes. In the long run, computing itself will dictate the changes. We’re living through a pivotal moment. It’s a world of multiple screens, smart displays, with tons of low cost computing, with big sensors built into devices. At Google we ask how to bring together something seamless and beautiful and intuitive across all these screens. The picture may look different a year or two from now, but in the short term, we have Android and we have Chrome, and we are not changing course.”

At that stage, the two OSs had increasingly been sharing APIs and services, with the Chrome browser as the unifying glue to tie the two user experiences together. But Pichai said that “for best performance across diverse objects, that needs to be driven by more than one OS”.

If the time has now come when that is no longer true, it will improve Google’s economics and streamline its ecosystem, and may push Microsoft and Apple (and other OS players like Ubuntu) to pursue convergence more aggressively.

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