Google wants to redesign the web in Android's image

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.

Convergence is a topic that I've covered a number of times before, because it is one of the major current trends across all of the major mobile platforms (and even a couple of the minor platforms). The plans all have their own nuances, but the end goal is always the same: create a unified experience for users across all computing devices - phones, tablets, PCs, and beyond. Google showed off its plans in full during the Google I/O keynote, and its convergence plans are taking a different path than you might expect, although they do start with your Android smartphone.

Canonical was the first to really show its hand in terms of a plan for convergence when it announced Ubuntu Touch. The timeline on its plans were far too long-term for most to bother getting excited, but the idea of having the same OS running on everything from smartphones and tablets to PCs and TVs was an intriguing one. The added options to dock a phone or tablet and have it become a traditional PC is a dream that we still haven't seen from any other companies. Of course, the reality from Ubuntu is still a couple years off, at least.

Microsoft was the next up to show its plans, and that was a far more controversial announcement. Microsoft started by creating the new Metro (now Modern) UI as the design language that would be used across all devices, and introducing the "shared core" between Windows Phone and Windows 8. The Modern UI still has plenty of detractors, especially when it comes to desktop. But, the issue with Windows has always been in the app ecosystem, and Microsoft addressed that with the new universal app development tools shown off a couple months ago. Microsoft still owns the desktop market (although that market is shrinking) and has a solid user base connected to TVs with the XBox, but is struggling to gain share in the mobile world, which would connect its convergence plans of "three screens and a cloud". New CEO Satya Nadella is committed to the cloud, which could mean Microsoft making moves that are similar to Google. 

Apple has claimed that it has no plans on converging iOS and MacOS, which sounds a lot like a traditional Apple statement of "it's not true, until it is." The two platforms likely will stay separate for a while, but that doesn't mean that Apple isn't working on having the two platforms work together closely. The beginning of that was unveiled at WWDC this year with the addition of "Handoff". Handoff will allow users to seamlessly continue tasks from a phone or tablet on a Mac, as well as be able to make calls or receive and send texts via a Mac. Apple has started to open up iOS this year with new sharing options and alternative keyboards; so, it's not hard to believe that Handoff could also be opened up to third-party developers as well. But, Apple's world has been a closed system aiming to push users towards content that Apple either controls or curates. 

The Android/Chrome OS misdirection

Google's road has been a bit trickier to follow, and a lot of that has to do with the transition from Andy Rubin to Sundar Pichai which happened early last year, but the awkwardness really began back in 2011 when Larry Page took back his spot as CEO of Google, and began work on unifying Google products. According to Businessweek, Andy Rubin was resistant to the plans, and was running the Android division very closed-off from the rest of Google. Rubin's style came to a head in 2012, when Sundar Pichai's team built Chrome for Android. Larry Page wanted Rubin to integrate Google products into Android more and not put as much effort into the stock Android apps. Rubin couldn't do it, so he resigned his position and Pichai took over as the head of both Android and Chrome. 

Since then, we have seen the rise of Google Android, including app after app of stock Android being replaced with a Google version, starting with Chrome and moving on to Google Calendar, Keyboard, Camera, and more. It also led to the rise of Google Play services, the framework which gives Google far more control over Android, and creates more hooks to keep users and developers locked-in to the platform. When Andy Rubin was in charge, the assumption had always been that Android would be the platform to make the leap from mobile to desktops, and those plans were in motion. But, when Sundar took over, he killed off those plans in favor of Chromebooks. It's hard to say if that was the right call, because we don't know how well Android laptops would do in the market, but Chromebooks have been far more popular than most ever expected. 

With the success of Chrome OS, the questions began to swirl as to how or if Google would try to merge it with Android. Yesterday, we got the answer to that question in a couple of different ways. First was the obvious: Pichai showed Android apps running in Chrome OS. To be fair, the project was said to be in "early days", so there are a lot of questions left about how it would work; but, it was clear that there are plans to allow Android apps to run on Chromebooks, and have integration for notifications, calls, and text support within Chrome OS. Pichai was very careful to point out one of the major caveats with the feature, which is that Google will "bring your favorite Android applications, in a thoughtful manner, to Chromebooks." Notice that he does not say all Android apps are coming, just "your favorite" apps. 

As you may have noticed, talking convergence when it comes to Google doesn't yield a straightforward discussion. Microsoft is unifying Windows and Windows Phone; Canonical is unifying Ubuntu and Ubuntu Touch; and, Apple isn't unifying iOS and MacOS, but is building more connections between the two. With Google, it is easy to claim that the plan is to unify Android with Chrome OS, but that's not quite right, because those aren't really Google's main platform. Google's main platform is the web, which is why Android and Chome can exist separately. Google doesn't need to converge Android and Chrome, it just needs to make content look native on both delivery methods. 

That's where Google's new design languages come in to play. Most of the focus has been on the new "material design" for Android, but that's only part of the story. Another major piece of the puzzle is Google's new Polymer design project which is "the embodiment of material design for the web", according to Google. Larry Page has succeeded in unifying the design across Google Apps, and now he wants to bring more cohesion to web apps with Polymer. Web apps are obviously a key component to Chrome OS, and Sundar Pichai has shown plans for cross-platform Chrome Apps, but showing how Android L handles web apps proves that content is the real king for Google, because Google isn't striving to unify the design of Android and Chrome. It is trying to unify the design of Android and the Web. 

Content is (finally) king

Google has always been a company focused on the web, and the beauty of the web is that it doesn't require convergence. The web is convergence. Google and others have already succeeded in pushing forward HTML5 and kickstarting a rise in more complex web apps. Chrome OS isn't exactly a platform in the traditional sense, it's just a high-powered browser. And, that Chrome browser and Chrome Apps already run on multiple other platforms, meaning there isn't a lot of necessity in converging Chrome OS and Android. The real focus is content. The main trouble with the web is that there is no unifying design language. It is essentially a free-for-all. There are few limitations on web design, and as Matias Duarte just told The Verge, "Design is all about finding solutions within constraint". Material and Polymer create those constraints for the web. 

It was revealed a while back that Google was working on something called "Project Hera", which would essentially break down the walls between native mobile apps and web apps. The fruits of that project are being seen in the new "Recents" menu in Android L, which displays each tab in Chrome as a separate piece of content in the recents menu. There have been plenty who have likened this to the way Windows Phone 8.1 handles IE tabs in its multitasking menu, but there is a key difference between the two: Google Search. 

Google Search already has the web covered, that part has been easy. The more difficult part is in mobile apps. For a while now, Google has been working to expand its search capabilities to include in-app content. It has been a slow roll, but Google recently expanded in-app search to include content in English from around the globe, and non-English content is definitely in the works. If Google has its way, content will become the focus. It won't matter if the content comes from a native app or from the web. It may not even matter if you are using Android or iOS, because Chrome Apps will exist on both and Google Search can get at all of it. If Google can get developers to use Material design philosophies and Polymer, web content won't just look like native Android content, but it could begin to hijack iOS as well. In the end, Google is in the business of serving up content (and with that come ads). 

Obviously, Google would prefer you to use Android, but whether you do or not won't be as important. Android is a gateway to Google services; Google services allow Google to learn more about you; and, the more Google knows about you, the more money it can make on advertising. The flip side to that is that the more Google knows about you, the better those products can be in offering you the most relevant content and services specifically for you. As much as Microsoft and others may want to paint it as such, Google isn't offering a one-sided deal to take your data and make money. You get value out of the proposition as well.

More importantly, content becomes king. Along with the rise of mobile, there has been an annoying trend where content has been put into silos. Apps lock in content, and platforms lock in apps. The aim has been to make information less open and to allow sharing only in certain ways. Web links gave way to apps, and open standards gave way to proprietary solutions often with unnecessary subscription models. From a business perspective, it makes some sense, because sources like The Wall Street Journal and Instagram have to give the impression that their content is somehow special, even though it isn't. This is the digital age, data is not a commodity anymore. The value comes from context, relevance, relationships with your audience, and offering a better way to interact with data. That's Google's plan.

With content being the focus and not apps, there isn't much need for converging platforms because the data is already freely available. This was a major theme of Google I/O this year. Android came to wearables, Chrome, TVs, and cars, but Google was clear to say that mobile comes first, meaning it all starts on your phone then moves out from there. The point of it all was to offer ways to get at the same content as always, regardless of where you were and what you're doing. Android is the vehicle, your phone is the hub/controller, and all roads lead to the web, not necessarily to Google Play. This is a stark contrast to Apple's world, where all roads lead to iTunes, and iTunes locks you in to the Apple world. 

Google won't say no if you want to lock yourself in to its world via Google Play, but it has to be noted that users can still get value from Google Play Books and Music without ever buying any content from either one. Google Play Music offers storage for 20,000 tracks, and Play Books offers storage for 1,000 books. All of the content put into that storage space could easily be pirated (not endorsed) or purchased from other outlets, and the only real requirement is that books be either ePub or PDF files. It seems reasonable to assume that Google would love to do the same with Play Movies & TV, but would face a hellstorm from the MPAA if it ever attempted that. 

This approach is something that Microsoft is also pursuing with its cloud services, the use of various content "hubs" in Windows Phone, and its content stores. But, its success has been more limited, partially due to slow adoption for Windows Phone and Windows 8, and partially because Microsoft is banking more on the app world and making deals with various apps to bring in content. Microsoft's efforts to learn more about users and add contextual organization is only just starting with Cortana, leaving the company well behind Google at least in that respect. Bing isn't quite as far-reaching as Google, but it is getting better as evidenced by universal search in Windows 8 and on the Xbox One, which will surface content from various sources, though not from inside apps. And, new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is a cloud guy at heart, so it wouldn't be surprising to see Microsoft and Google going in similar directions going forward. Google has likely been studying the Xbone a bit to learn some lessons for what to do with Android TV, just as Microsoft has been keeping an eye on Google's moves with Drive and Google Now. 

Android is the Internet of Things

But, ultimately, it seems unlikely that Microsoft would try to pull an end-around content holders the way Google appears to be. Google is being somewhat careful in its moves. Certain content types, like video, are far more difficult to disrupt than others, although YouTube has been doing a solid job in that respect. Google offers a way around paying for music with the Play Music storage option, but would really rather have users paying for All Access. The real move with Android L, material design, and polymer appears to be Google trying to regain primacy for data that had been part of its link ecosystem in the earlier days of the web, but had been locked into silos in the age of apps. 

Google's approach is all about access and context. The apps and the web content are there, and Google Search can find it. Google Now (which is effectively part of Search) learns your habits and feeds out what you probably want to see at a certain time and place. Android Auto, Chromecast, and Android Wear are merely extensions of your smartphone into different contexts. And, the control duties are left up to the best computer you have with you at all times: your smartphone. The main Android platform inhabits phones, tablets, and soon TVs. Google inhabits the web. Android and Chrome deliver that content to you in a way that is easy to consume, but Google still tries to provide the same content through other platforms. 

Android is Google's vision for The Internet of Things, where everything in your life is connected to the Internet. Android is malleable and adaptable, but its real strength is its extensibility, something that Apple is just now beginning to allow with iOS. Although it hasn't been fully revealed, extensibility looks like the plan for Nest as well. It just won't be a direct extension of Android. Android Auto and Wear extend the use case of your primary device, likely your phone. The power of this is that is lessens the need to continually update all of the hardware in your life. To a large extent, Android Auto and Wear will gain features as your phone does. You won't really need to worry about updating your car (a relatively difficult thing to do). And, watches are not something that people would normally upgrade on a regular basis, so asking them to start is a tricky proposition, even if the watches in question can start to come in under $200. 


Google is obviously doubling down on content, no matter whether it comes from, apps or the web, and attempting to treat everything equally. Or, at least treat it all equally until it gets filtered through Google Now and organized for context and relevance. Google's mission has always been stated as "organizing the world's information", and this appears to be the natural evolution of that. Organization first requires gathering from all sources, and then in presentation, organization becomes tied to personalization. The information that I consume, and how I consume it is likely very different from you. That is the path from Google Search to Google Now. The last piece is in the UI of the presentation, and that's where Google may be over-reaching.

Google is trying to be very smart here, and may be a bit too smart for its own good. The push for material design and polymer has more far-reaching aims that seem apparent at first. Google presented it as a simple unified UI for content on phones, tablets, and laptops. The twist comes when you remember that Google's laptops are just web browsers, which means Google is attempting to create a unified UI for the web. It is an interesting aim, but one that could very well be destined to fail. 



1. Jinto

Posts: 436; Member since: Jan 15, 2014

Lol, my grandparents would get super confused online after that

2. XperiaFanZone

Posts: 2279; Member since: Sep 21, 2012

They're better off not redesigning anything.

3. steedsofwar unregistered

I particularly love this idea of convergence. Looking forward to see if Google can execute and deliver this. They are king of web and because web is already 'convergence', I'm very excited for what the near future holds.

7. androiphone20

Posts: 1654; Member since: Jul 10, 2013

Is it that bad?

4. magnanimus

Posts: 565; Member since: Mar 29, 2013

Michael H has got to be the best article writer on phonearena. Hats off to you sir

6. steedsofwar unregistered

Very true. An excellent article that shows deep insight and an ability to glean so much from information that ordinary folk would just walk past.

11. nokia12

Posts: 610; Member since: Nov 19, 2013

just after reading the first 2 lines i was able to make out this is Michael.H (the length part of articles also helped ;) ) jost love reading Michael's Article.. very carefully thought and written

13. MAXXtreme

Posts: 7; Member since: Sep 29, 2011

Yes, all of your articles are just stellar Michael! It doesn't matter what it's about, but if you wrote it, I'll take the time and go through it all! Another superb article! Thanks

5. smallworld

Posts: 517; Member since: Jul 13, 2012

Hell no Google ! Leave the web as it is.

8. androiphone20

Posts: 1654; Member since: Jul 10, 2013

Google has done a lot to blur the line between native apps and the web and it shows. But is it meaningfully different? Like you said the changes are subtle and they will also won't happen overnight because (​android-phones-work-with-googles-new-smartwatches/​). This is Apple's strongsuit, and anyone with half a brain can see how quickly it can come together seamlessly from a company that controls both the hardware and software. I am willing to go through design but that's besides the point and the topic altogether and it's a whole subject on its own. (Not forgetting the two elephants in the room G+ and Glass ;))

9. androiphone20

Posts: 1654; Member since: Jul 10, 2013

10. bucky

Posts: 3791; Member since: Sep 30, 2009

I'm sorry, but NO company should try to model the internet after itself. This is getting a little scary tbh.

12. GalaxyNoted

Posts: 7; Member since: Aug 03, 2013

Sir, I must take my hat off to you for another amazing article. The insights you provide are truly extraordinary and have helped me create a much more complete mental picture of the state of mobile; particularly in regards to Google. Not only that, but the way you present information makes it incredibly approachable and thoroughly enjoyable to read. I must agree with nokia12, it didn't even take two lines to recognize your writing. Please keep up the great work!

14. domfonusr

Posts: 1087; Member since: Jan 17, 2014

Any device can already be a portal to Google's services... if Google pulls this next phase off, then it will only solidify their hold on the internet, and secure the idea that more devices are simply terminals for Google's cloud by default. Normally I root for Google, but there is a point beyond which my worst fears would be realized, and it would no longer be in my best interest to root for the clear victor. At some point I will have to pick a new underdog for my own conscience's sake. And yes, another excellent and thoroughly thought-out article by Michael H.

15. bobby2803

Posts: 32; Member since: Jun 28, 2014

Google is fast becoming skynet of real world. I practically feel that it knows more about me than my family members. Others create software to sell hardware, google sells hardware to gather information through free software. It knows almost everything about half of humanity, lets hope our military and Intelligence agencies are more secure and haven't allowed it in.

17. mattkl

Posts: 255; Member since: Feb 01, 2010

"I practically feel that it knows more about me than my family members." But it only knows what you give it.

16. Napalm_3nema

Posts: 2236; Member since: Jun 14, 2013

The next wars are already being planned, and privacy will be the driver. At some point, the Milennials will change their minds about the unimportance of privacy, because who you were can be embarrassing to who you are, and you don't want a public record of that to remind you on a daily basis, and that will be the final nail in Google's ambition coffin. Of course, we may not be worrying about Google at that point, just governments, because Google's ambition already outstrips its resources. Ad revenue will start a major downtrend as more tools become available to thwart the serving of ads and data mining that is Google's bread and butter and the ROI for advertising declines. The outcry for more privacy protection and laws to curb the, if not illegal, certainly unethical ways that Google and other advertising companies circumvent safeguards built to protect our data grows daily. When government entities finally act in a comprehensive manner, their action may not be swift and decisive, but it will be punitive, because someone has to pay for the research, panels, and working groups that will be formed to combat this growing threat to our rights. There are more reasons Google will have to change, or be forced into obsolescence, but I see those as the major ones that will cause Google to evolve or die.

18. steelew

Posts: 221; Member since: Jun 04, 2012

If we are going to have one experience, I vote for the desktop to have a desktop experience. I have a 1920px wide monitor, please fill it. Stop using the middle 3rd of it.

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