What it will mean when Android and Chrome OS merge

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
What it will mean when Android and Chrome OS merge
The question of how Android and Chrome OS would coexist has been one that has been bouncing around for years. I first took a dive into the possibility of the two platforms merging back in May of 2012, where I said the merger didn't make a huge amount of sense; and then in March of 2013, I flat out said that I didn't want Google to merge the two if it meant the death of Chrome OS. Now, it sounds like Google listened, because while it has been reported that Android and Chrome OS will merge, Chrome OS is not going to be killed off either.

According to the original report from the Wall Street Journal, "Google plans to fold its Chrome operating system for personal computers into its Android mobile operating system", and the report claimed "people familiar with the matter" said this would mean a significant change to Chromebooks. However, The Verge has received confirmation directly from Google that Chrome OS as we know it will continue to exist and will not be killed off, and new head of Android and Chrome Hiroshi Lockheimer came out on Twitter supporting Chrome OS. So, Google still believes there will be a place for Chromebooks in the future.

This is a significant change to the story and what Google's plan will mean for users. Ultimately, it makes it sound more like a continuation of what we've already been seeing with Android and Chrome OS rather than a huge convergence. On the Android side of things, Chrome was always going to continue to get better and better anyway. The idea that Chrome OS will be "folded into" Android really just means that Google has plans to achieve feature parity between Chrome for Android and Chrome OS. 

Android changes

On the Android side of things, there are a couple of easy guesses to make, like that Chrome on Android will likely get extension support and maybe theme support. Other desktop Chrome-specific features like pinned tabs wouldn't really be necessary on phones because of a lack of screen real estate and the way tab management works, but it could be added to the individual tab management system that already exists on larger tablets as it likely would on laptop hybrids. Ultimately, it's hard to imagine Google bringing full feature parity with Chrome, because that would mean running Pepper Flash on mobile devices, and many (myself included), would love to see Flash be killed off completely because of both the performance hit it causes on machines and the massive security issues it has.

Beyond that, things get more speculative, but there is one thing that may come from Chrome OS to Android that would prove to be a big change: true multitasking. 

Obviously, Android has had proper background multitasking forever, but I'm talking about official options for having more than one app running on screen at the same time. Frankly, it's crazy that the iPad got split-screen multitasking before stock Android. Sure, Samsung has had split-screen on its devices, but it's something that Google should have packed into Android for everyone by now. The question with the Chrome OS "merge" is whether Android will get basic split-screen or actual windowing of apps, or perhaps both. 

Google has talked for a while about making it easier for developers to bring Chrome Apps to both Android and iOS and those tools will likely continue to evolve, but Chrome Apps have the ability to run in windows if need be. On phones, this wouldn't be necessary, but on tablets it could offer a nice productivity boost. And, if the Chrome OS taskbar made an appearance for easier switching between tasks, that would be all the better to deal with windows. But, overall windows might be confusing and hard to handle on a touchscreen slab, but proper split-screen would be a very welcome addition to Android.

Chrome OS changes

Although, the idea that it will be Chrome Apps making more of a mark on Android is a questionable one, because the last time Google mentioned anything about that effort was January of 2014. More likely, the merging of the two operating systems will mean a continuation of the efforts to bring Android apps to Chrome OS. Google confirmed that Chrome OS would not be killed off, but that doesn't necessarily mean it won't be changing, and the most likely way that change will manifest itself is with deeper integration of Android apps. 

Usually there are two aims for convergence: 1) to make the experience more cohesive for users, and 2) to offer universal app development tools for developers. Google doesn't really need to worry too much about the experience for users, because Android and Chrome have enough market share that users understand each environment pretty well. But, giving developers better tools for the "code once, run anywhere" side of the convergence dream is something that could be done with a more "merged" Android and Chrome OS experience. 

Google has already been trying to push touchscreens on Chromebooks, which doesn't make much sense for straight Chrome OS by itself, but when you add in more Android apps, those touchscreens should be far more useful. 

Overall though, Chrome OS will likely stay relatively the same, because it is a niche OS that works really well for a certain subset of of users (full disclosure: I'm writing this article on a Toshiba Chromebook 2.) But, just because Google said it won't kill Chrome OS doesn't mean this merge won't mean the death of it anyway. 

The hybrid/laptop question

Probably the number one reason why the two platforms need to merge is to bring a desktop-class version of Chrome to Android, and while that would be nice to have on tablets, the real benefit would be on hybrid/convertible laptop/tablet devices just like the new Pixel C. However, it is unclear which path Google prefers for hybrid/laptop devices: to have full Android running no matter the device, or have laptop devices run Chrome OS with Android apps and switch to full Android when the tablet portion is removed. 

This is a strange question, because Android has proven capable of scaling from phones all the way to TVs, but Chrome OS appears to be at its best in the display size tier from laptops to desktops. Google has wanted to push Android on laptops for a long time now, but it hasn't quite been able to make it work. Part of the reason is that the Android app selection on larger tablets is still somewhat weak compared to iOS. It's not a terribly big deal, because large tablets are mostly used for content consumption and web browsing anyway, which sounds a lot like what a "merged" Android and Chrome OS would be quite good at. And, with the added power of a full Chrome experience, many missing apps could be replaced by the web. It doesn't matter if the Facebook app for 10-inch Android tablets is terrible, because the website is still the best experience for using Facebook anyway.

Of course, the question is whether there would be any need for Chrome OS and Chromebooks once there were laptop/hybrid devices running a version of Android that included a full Chrome browser experience. As much as Flash needs to die, that may be a benefit to a proper Chromebook, if Google doesn't find a way or doesn't want to bring that to the Chrome experience on Android.

Price will be the ultimate factor though. It is still possible to get quality Chromebooks for around $300, while a quality Android tablet plus keyboard dock runs in the $600 range at the lowest. Even with everything else the same, an Android laptop would need to include a touchscreen, which would automatically make it more expensive than the cheapest Chromebook. 

Chromebooks have slowly been trying to break into higher-end price points - the Chromebook Pixel is $1000, and the new Dell Chromebook 13 has options that range up to $799 - but as well built as those machines may be, consumers continue to find it hard to spend more than about $500 on a good Chrome OS machine. So, it may end up that Chrome OS continues to live in the low-end price points for laptops, while Android comes in to offer options in the higher pricing tiers. 

When hardware costs come down, Android could ultimately take over all of those segments and force Google to shutter Chrome OS all-together, but it makes sense for Google to see how it plays out before putting Chrome OS in the grave. Or, at least relegating Chrome OS to being the 'also included' feature for Android devices.

What would you all prefer? I know I want to see Chrome OS survive, but if Android running on a laptop can be as fast and smooth as my Chromebook, I could be swayed to change my mind. 

reference: The Verge & @Lockheimer

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