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If Android’s wings are clipped, other Google platform elements may gain power

If Google’s wings are clipped in the mobile market by European Union judgements, other elements of its portfolio may gain heavier strategic weight as it pushes to create a dominant platform that looks well beyond PCs and mobile devices, and into every object which will have a web connection in future.

Like Facebook, the company is engaged in developments in virtually every link of the emerging web experience chain, from AI-driven engines for fully context-aware services, to new user interfaces centered on virtual reality and speech; to expansion of connectivity itself via drones, balloons and unconventional spectrum options.

All of these activities will create foundations which Google can control, and which will support the continuous expansion of its platform, the element of all this which actually delivers revenues via services, applications, content and advertising. But if Google is restricted in how aggressively it can leverage the dominance of Android, it will have to alter its ecosystem practices – but also may adopt a more multi-faceted approach that does not rely only on extensions of Android.

Some recent Google news highlights some of the other potential jewels in its next generation platform. One, of course, is Chrome, the browser which morphed into a full lightweight operating system, Chrome OS, but has remained greatly overshadowed by the fatter and more traditional Android. The Chrome browser itself now accounts for 47% of all page views worldwide, according to StatCounter, and so is undoubtedly an unparalleled asset when seeking to drive a new generation of mobile web experiences and services. This week, the browser reached its fiftieth release and claimed 771bn page loads a month and a billion monthly active users on mobile devices.

However, a browser needs to be more than just a browser if it is to remain a source of power and control in a new wave of web platforms. These will see the browser becoming the heart of the entire experience as streaming, real time communications and web services replace apps, downloads and plug-ins over time. But that means it will need an ecosystem and developer framework as rich and varied as that of the apps platforms, and it will have to adapt to new user interfaces driven by speech and multimedia, and to new devices with tiny or non-existent screens.

In that respect, Chrome is moving too slowly. Chrome OS was an early recognition that Google needed to expand the browser into a full platform. The Chromebook, and a few other devices like Chromecast, were supposed to spawn a whole new generation of mobile and media gadgets which would usher in new business models based around real time, always-on connectivity (constant updates for enterprise Chromebooks, rather than downloaded upgrades; multiscreen content streaming; low cost hardware with revenues driven by services consumption).

But the revolution has not arrived. The decline of apps has been far slower than many expected, leaving Android in pole position and Chrome OS’s role, beyond powering the relatively niche Chromebook form factor, often confused. Even Chrome itself is less differentiated from other browsers than it used to be, and has made compromises on its original always-connected vision – native Chrome OS apps with offline functionality and a store, for instance, giving rise to speculation that the platform would converge with Android.

Google seems to have pulled back from many aspects of Chrome’s expansion, killing off the notification center, web store and app launcher on most operating systems, while Chrome OS itself remains a small part of the total PC and mobile base. Convergence with Android may seem logical, allowing Google to mix elements of native and web platforms more flexibly to meet unpredictable user behaviour shifts.

But that ignores the fact that, in the short term, Chrome OS could be a useful way to reduce Android’s power without actually giving up overall Google presence. And in the longer term, there are many elements which could feed into a truly new web platform, more easily than Android. Google will, at some stage, need to create something entirely new which will bring virtual reality, rich media, new device form factors and the real time IoT to its platform, but that will take time to evolve, and if Chrome OS was ahead of its time, it would be rash to sideline it now, when it could be a valuable stepping stone towards a world beyond Android.

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