At the tail end of last week, Google's Eric Schmidt felt it necessary to repeat the fact that the company isn't merging Android and Chrome OS, as the creator of Android has left the group and the project has been taken over by the shepherd of Chrome OS.
I, for one, am disappointed, because I'd like to see Chrome OS die. Chrome OS is an unrealistic, unpleasant, and uncomfortable attempt to shoehorn consumers into a particularly impractical way of working, and Android can do everything it does better.
The false promise of Chrome
Chrome is just another attempt at thin-client computing, a 60-year-old idea that was later supplanted by the superior personal computing concept. Thin clients, which are relatively dumb terminals that rely on remote servers to do heavy lifting, are a great idea in tethered corporate contexts, as they're cheaper and more secure than computers that actually have to think for themselves.
But as personal computers, thin clients are a pain. We can't assume our PCs will always be connected to the Internet, so PCs must have an offline mode. On Chrome OS computers, that means kludging your way through offline HTML5 "apps," which are slower, clumsier, and inevitably more awkward to use than a well-written native app. That situation isn't going to change quickly, because HTML5 is an extremely high-level complex of languages that greatly privilege portability over speed and access to hardware.
Yes, yes, eventually we'll be connected to the Internet all the time, and 6G cellular connections will be as free as air. The fact that this column could be wrong in 10 years’ time doesn't mean it isn't right today.
There are limited uses for web-only personal PCs right now, but they're more in the desktop context than the laptop context. Because Chrome OS devices are inexpensive and easy to protect against malware, they could be sitting on the desk of every computer-phobic person out there who just needs to get on their email and Pinterest. I know several people whose entire computer usage consists of going to three or four websites daily, and one of them is Gmail. That's your web-only PC market.
The true promise of Android
We don't need Chrome OS at all when we already have Android, because Android can be everything Chrome OS is and more. Android also runs on low-power, inexpensive devices. It would run just fine on the 1.7GHz Exynos 5 CPU you find in Samsung's latest bargain basement Chromebooks.
The one step Google needs to take is to upgrade the Chrome browser for Android to the same quality as the Chrome OS browser, which should be possible as both operating systems run on the Linux kernel. Android phones have been waiting for that upgrade for a while, and the upgrade is becoming imperative as Android goes up against the desktop-class browsers in the Firefox and Ubuntu mobile OSes. Perhaps that will be the big advance in Android 5.0.
Yes, Android devices typically have touchscreens and laptops don't, but Motorola's Webtop experiment brings experience in how to adapt Android apps to a laptop context. Google owns Motorola. And if corporations still want the ultimate in thin-client security, the products could ship with an option to kick into a locked-down mode where Chrome is the only app running. Android could very well masquerade as Chrome OS.
But Android gives you the option to run more than a browser. Local apps generally have smoother UIs and make better use of graphics hardware than apps running in a browser window. Under Android with the full Chrome browser, the web and local computing would be equal citizens. These new laptops would edit files in Google Docs when they're connected to the Internet, and play Riptide GP when they aren't. Since they'd run everything from Google Play, both apps and media, they'd be a no-brainer for owners of Android phones who've been sinking money into that store.
Google's continued promotion of Chrome OS is an example of ideology triumphing over practicality. Google wants the "web to win," but it's already built something that has the web and more, and is winning. That's Android. Google needs to take advantage of this organisational moment to kill the Chrome OS distraction once and for all.
For another take on all this, check out: The Chromebook isn't a poor product, it's just misunderstood.