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Google gearing up for Chrome OS tablets

Android may have a new rival as the proddable touchscreen OS of choice - and it isn't Apple's much-rumoured iOS 5. New research indicates that Google's own Chrome operating system is stealthily being optimised for mobile devices - and could soon be coming to a tablet near you.

Techies at CNET have taken a closer look at Chrome's source code, and spotted a number of clues that the search giant's programmers are planning a move into tablets.

Recent changes to the code now explicitly refer to a virtual keyboard, as well as an interface that's optimised for touchscreen operation.

Until now, the browser-based OS has been targeted at netbook devices, including Google's reference model, the Cr-48, released to testers last December. Samsung, Sony and Acer have also promised Chrome-based netbook devices around the middle of 2011.

The move may have been prompted by dwindling sales and naysayers predicting the slow death of the netbook - chiefly at the hands of tablet devices such as Apple's iPad 2. But switching to a tablet-friendly Chrome would present Google with something of a dilemma.

Presenting the world with two tablet OSes would see an even greater fragmentation of the market - already one of the chief criticisms levelled at Android, which is split between the tablet-specific 3.0 Honeycomb, and the smartphone-centric Gingerbread (2.3), Froyo (2.2) and earlier releases.

It could also create confusion for consumers, killing any chance an Android device might have of supplanting the Apple iOS-based iPad and iPad 2 as king of the tablet world.

Doubtless, developers will also be less then keen to develop apps for the two platforms in parallel - reigniting talk of a merger between the two operating systems.

Soon after Chrome was announced in 2009, Google founder Sergey Brin casually suggested to journalists that the two platforms were "likely to converge over time". With the new features uncovered by CNET's researchers, it seems that time may be fast approaching.