Google has sold 500k Chromebooks, and why we don't want to see Android merge with Chrome OS
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Last week, the head of Chrome at Google, Sundar Pichai, took over as the head of Android, when Andy Rubin stepped down. Android has been an extremely successful platform, as has the Chrome web browser, but not surprisingly Chrome OS has not been quite as popular. In fact, a new report says that Google has sold fewer than 500,000 Chromebooks so far (and, full disclosure: one of those purchases was by me.)
Given that Chrome OS has had a relatively short lifespan so far, we're actually hoping that Sundar Pichai's new position as head of Android (in addition to retaining his position as head of Chrome) doesn't point to a merging of the two products. The DigiTimes article makes it seem like it is inevitable, but we're not so sure it will be in the form that you might expect. Google has always maintained that Android is for touchscreen devices and Chrome OS is for devices with keyboards. Of course, there have been Android devices with keyboard docks, and the new Chromebook Pixel has a touchscreen; so, the lines are blurring.
We'd say that the real key to the future of Android and Chrome can be seen with the Chromebook Pixel and crouton, which uses chroot to allow users to quickly switch between Chrome OS and Ubuntu with just a keystroke. Chrome OS is essentially a barebones Linux OS that only runs Chrome, but crouton allows Ubuntu to run as a guest OS using the Chromium OS system with its own segregated file system. This way, users still get Chrome OS as intended, but have the option to switch over to a full-featured OS when and if necessary, and using chroot makes this all extremely fast, because it isn't a dual-boot system, Android would run inside Chrome OS (or vice versa). Using chroot may not be the best possible solution, because of security risks that arise with the method, but the basic idea is still sound.
Chromebooks are selling "better than expected", and that the various models have total sales of less than 500,000 units. It's unclear if this includes the 2,000 schools that have adopted Chromebooks, or the various business partners that Google has for the platform.The report from DigiTimes was told by a source that Google and Acer have said
Those numbers put Chrome OS at less than 1% of the notebook market, but that doesn't really tell the whole story. Chromebooks first hit the retail market in mid-2011, but the models offered were overpriced. The Samsung Series 3 Chromebook was the first to sell for $249, and was released in October 2012. So, it's fairly safe to say that the majority of Chromebook sales have likely happened in the past four and a half months, since the price point on the Samsung Series 3 and Acer C7 really started the consumer interest.
Let them grow separately
But, when talking about merging the two platforms, the prevailing idea is usually that Android already runs the Chrome browser, so it seems like an easy move to just put Android on laptops. We understand that many of our readers are power users, and may not be able to understand the value of the "browser in a box" idea, but trust us, a $249 two and a half pound notebook is a killer product for a writer, and Chromebooks work quite well for a large amount of the population who don't need anything more than a browser. There are plenty of people in the world who live in a browser, and there are more and more each day. The web is constantly getting better and offering more tools to users.
The idea of simply putting Android on laptops ignores the strengths of Chrome OS, and ignores the weaknesses of Android. The main strength of Chrome OS is actually the main weakness of Android: security and updates. Chrome OS is not an open platform; it is controlled and built by Google (though Chrome OS has roots in the open source Chromium and WebKit projects.) Because of this, and because it is just a browser in a box, Chrome OS devices are always up to date. They are fast, simple, easy, and Chrome OS was the only browser to not get hacked at Pwnium 3 earlier this month. Chromebooks are not designed to be the primary computer of a power-user, they are meant to be the primary computer of a casual user, or the secondary computer for anyone else.
On the other hand, Android isn't weak on security, but there are more ways for a casual user to do something stupid and create risks in the platform than it is with Chrome OS. And, of course, Android's biggest issue is getting updates pushed to all of the various devices in the ecosystem. Android is built more for power users, so there are a ton of deeper options, and as such Android has a steeper learning curve. Android has 800,000+ apps, sure, but keep in mind that the vast majority of those apps are optimized for devices 7" and under. The app selection for 10" tablets is still not up to par for Android, which would severely hamper the experience of using Android on a laptop that would be 11" or larger. Besides, how many things are there that you really can't do with a Chromebook? Unless you can't live without Skype, or advanced video/photo editing tools, there isn't much the web (and Chrome OS) can't do.
They can live together, but not kill each other
There are two distinct use cases for Chrome OS and Android, so why not allow for both? The perfect device would be something along the lines of the Asus Transformer series, because it would need a keyboard for Chrome OS, and it would need to also be a proper tablet for Android. As we said, Chrome OS is designed to be the primary platform of a casual user, or the secondary platform for anyone else, so creating a hybrid device would make sense for a number of users.
The success of one platform doesn't necessarily have to mean the destruction of the other (similar to the idea that just because Android is the most successful, doesn't mean that there is no value in iOS or Windows Phone.) We think that Sundar Pichai may understand that, and may not be looking to merge the two platforms, at least not without giving Chrome OS more time to grow.
Android is a powerhouse, and can certainly take on most any task, but Android is still not quite where it needs to be as far as having app optimized for larger screens. There are still far too many apps that can't run on a 10" tablet, so an 11"+ laptop would cause even more trouble. There are many out there who just want to see Android on laptops, and end the discussion there, but we don't agree. There is value in the Chrome OS platform, and it shouldn't be dismissed so quickly.
The web is an amazing place, and has a ton to offer. Because of that, Chrome OS has a lot to offer as well. Chrome OS is still pretty young, and really just became a viable option in the notebook space about 4 months ago. So, at the very least, it's a bit too early to talk about the death of the platform.