Google's Internal Collision Course: Chrome vs. Android

from the android's-gonna-win dept

I spent the last couple days at Google’s big developer conference, Google I/O. While officially a developer conference, the event is often a window into Google’s overall thinking on where it’s headed. There are a lot of new products and features shown off — some more ready for prime time than others. The clear takeaway from the overall event is that Google doesn’t just believe that we’re moving to a more connected world, it’s grown sick of waiting for everyone else to develop it, and is laying the groundwork itself. So much of the event was about new offerings that enable more advanced things to happen via the internet and via devices. From a standpoint of pure geekery, it’s pretty cool to see that vision in action.

However, there was one other thing that became abundantly clear at the event, and it’s that Google is on an internal collision course with itself. Day one of the event was all Android, all the time, and day two of the event was Chrome, Chrome and a little more Chrome (for good measure). With Android, the talk was basically about expanding Android everywhere. While Google had rushed out a separate and distinct version of Android for tablets, it is bringing the tablet version and the phone version back together and also looking to put it on other devices (e.g. Google TV will be powered by Android as well). On top of that, Google is looking to expand the overall purview of Android, by making it easier to control all sorts of hardware and devices as well. The vision, effectively, is that Android becomes the remote control for, well, everything. Others have tried similar strategies and failed, but it’s ambitious, and sooner or later someone’s going to figure it out, and Google has as good a chance as anyone.

On the Chrome side, the company continues to make improvements to Chrome itself, increasing performance massively, and continuing to allow people to do more with HTML 5 directly in the browser. On top of that, Google is really ramping up its “Chromebook” strategy of offering very cheap computers with the “ChromeOS” and with built-in cheap or free wireless.

Of course, this raised all sorts of questions about the fact that both strategies are on a clear collision course, and it’s not obvious that Google has any plan on what to do about it. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Two years ago, when Google first announced the Chrome-as-operating system strategy, our very first reaction was that it was going to lead to conflict with Android. And that was clearly on display at the event. Asking folks from either team about this odd split would lead to mumbling and dancing around the question. It seems clear that the two teams don’t have much, if any, collaboration going on, and both are charting their own courses that seem to be starting to encroach on each other’s territory. That’s most obvious with Google TV. While the product has been slow to catch on, the original version was focused on Chrome, but it sounds like Android is now taking over.

Now, there’s something to be said for some internal competition. It helps drive both groups forward, and lets them take different and experimental approaches in a new world where what’s going to work is a huge unknown. Traditionally, though, if most companies allow for such competition, it’s usually an upstart “skunkworks”-type operation against a legacy operation. In this case, it’s two upstarts. And the risk there is what happens when they clash. The fact that there’s no Chrome browser on Android (and the default Android browser is pretty bad) just seems bizarre.

At some point, Google is going to need to merge these two strategies, rather than just let them fight each other. Perhaps the big thinkers at Google think that time is further down the road, but it seems like soon would be a good time to start integrating the strategies. For now, however, it seems happy to let the two just remain on the collision course. And while I have no doubt that they believe both strategies are important, it wasn’t hard to read the tea leaves as to which of these two Google is betting more on: the entire third floor of the Moscone Center was about Android. In contrast, Chrome had a much smaller section at the back of the second floor. Google may claim that it’s treating the two equally, but its actions scream loudly that the big bet is on Android.

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Comments on “Google's Internal Collision Course: Chrome vs. Android”

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umb231 (profile) says:

I somehow don’t see them directly competing against eachother for a while. Chrome OS is aiming at the very inexpensive laptop market (which will be good for students, non gamers, and lower income families after the basics of the internet), where as android is on high end smartphones (and looks to be moving to the crazy expensive controlled house market). I’m sure as both try to expand who they target (inexpensive phones, higher end laptops, tablets being fought over by both) they’ll eventually collide, but that’s probably a ways off.
I didn’t know Android didn’t use the Chrome browser though, I do find that odd, but I’, assuming they’re using some stock open source browser so that it’s more tightly integrated with Android. It might have been a decision from the beginning so as not to require all android users be stuck with a non open browser, but then we have to remember most android phones come with google maps and email by default…

TechnoMage (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s webkit based , but very vanilla.

… so exactly what most users would be able to use without having to teach them anything. The Browser issue isn’t an issue at all on Android, due it being able to install any Application you want to be your browser. Default functionality being bland(but working) isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Adoption of Android with non-techies is for a reason, these things are important. (just not to us, lol )

(The green section shows the webkit implementation)

Sean T Henry (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Thats the one thing I do not like about my Android phone is that it does not run Chrome. It would be very use full to have a striped down version of Chrome on my phone. Right now I have to use SkyFire much better than “web” but I do not want the send to Twit and face book junk. Also being able to sync my book marks between my phone and home computer would be great.

Casey Bouch (user link) says:

Re: Re:

“I somehow don’t see them directly competing against eachother for a while.”

Android also has a market as an operating system, something we’ve seen with the tablets. There is still an obvious collision here. It’s the Netbook vs Tablet collision, but still a collision. I’m interested to see how the Chromebook takes off, kind of hoping it will put a dent in the iPad market. Though with the short lived popularity of the Netbook and the huge iPad craze we seem to be having… it’s going to be tough.

though, I’m a bit bias. I have an Android Phone, an Android Tablet, and the CR-48 Chrome OS Laptop.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I see them very much competing. Mike is right. I’ve had the same view. I don’t see what Chrome does that Android doesn’t.

Android can run on very “low end” devices as well. Android is not just for phones. I can be for tablets. TV’s. Netbooks. Refrigerators. And as microprocessors and displays become dirt cheap, eventually even for Toasters and Alarm Clocks.

In 2015 today’s high end smartphone will be the low end piece of junk controller for a microwave oven — running Android.

Any pricing or subsidy model for hardware that works for Chrome also works for Android. No reason you can’t have an Android netbook for $20 per month, or one time cost of $350. If a chrome notebook has 16 GB of SSD, that is plenty enough for Android. Most smartphones have that much or less and work great. Early netbooks had that much and were still useful.

I just don’t see what Chrome’s advantage is. Chrome is touted as a terminal to the cloud. Well, Android makes an excellent terminal to the cloud as well, but is also useful when you’re not connected, say on a plane.

PopeRatzo (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think ChromeOS could be a lot more than just for laptops for low income folks.

One of the things that keeps me from carrying a laptop or tablet everywhere is the expense and worry about breaking or losing it. Sometimes, I just don’t need games or fancy touch screens, but give me a $50 tablet that’ll do email and surf the web and I’ll give you dozens of situations where I don’t currently take my technology that I’d take one of those. Even, (or especially), with a cheap resistive touch screen.

Just keep your data plan to yourself. I have no need for another contract in my life, thanks very much. Wi-Fi only.

TechnoMage (profile) says:

I would agree... but...

The target devices is the key dividing line between these two devices.

Android is for everything that isn’t a PC/Laptop/Netbook

Chrome is for the Laptop/Netbook market. (I don’t see a Desktop/Workstation replacement right now from GOOG)

Having a full keyboard, with a mouse is an entirely different experience than that of a touch screen. Potentially down the road a hybrid GUI/IO system might evolve, but for now… we have two camps: Computer vs Other.

As someone who has looked heavily at Dalvik (Android’s internal virtual machine), I believe we will see things like that (if not Dalvik itself) merging into a standard Linux distribution. This would provide another layer of security and sand boxing above and beyond what is already available in browsers. Chrome on Android or Dalvik on ChromeOS, either way, we’ll see a better platform for computing.

I think this is more of a “proper tool for the job” issue right now than an internal split. And… Google doesn’t want to admit that there is a difference in ‘jobs'(tasks, etc) out there, because it doesn’t want to limit itself in the future(Which to Google is next quarter).

Overall Android is/was a much bigger tech jump than previous embedded device OSs than ChromeOS is compared to laptop/netbook OSs. But, that doesn’t mean that ChromeOS doesn’t fill a really nice niche right now, I’m debating buying one of these for my mom (and might do so). ChromeOS is “just different enough to be ‘neat’, but not different enough to scare away” people who don’t care about tech, tech policy, Computer Science, etc. And that is really a key issue with most consumers.

chris (profile) says:

Re: Re: I would agree... but...

Except that the new version of Honeycomb (3.1) will enable USB keyboard & mouse on Android tablets, so they are indeed blurring the lines here.

the bigger screen and keyboard have a very real psychological effect on the user. i tested a celio redfly terminal (a small netbook shaped device that attaches to a smart phone) and it made using my smartphone positively maddening. the smartphone form factor is such that you really don’t notice the lag, but increase the screen size and attach a keyboard that i can actually type on and the lag is rage inducing.

when you use something that looks like a laptop, you expect it to behave like a laptop. this is why i don’t think the Atrix 4G is a good idea.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: I would agree... but...

I disagree.

There is no reason Android wouldn’t work for a “folding tablet” with a keyboard. (A.k.a., netbook)

All you need is apps for the typical “netbook” applications. For example, office spreadsheet, word processor, etc.

Chrome may be intended for netbooks, but that doesn’t somehow make Android unsuitable for them as well. At the very least, every case you make for Chrome is also an argument that applies to Android. Small. Linux based. Runs on inexpensive hardware. Has an excellent browser. Can use web applications in the cloud.

Jon B. (profile) says:

Re: I would agree... but...

The two overlap when you get to “tablet”/”netbook”

I don’t think Android NEEDS a touchscreen to work, so it could work on netbooks. Some “netbooks” have had touchscreens, so which would be better?

Once you’re doing something on a netbook that Android can’t do, you’re probably beyond what ChromeOS is useful for and need a real OS like Ubuntu or Windows 7

Matt H (profile) says:

Google TV

First off, I love reading your articles. TechDirt is awesome!

Just wanted to offer a small correction to your article… Google TV has never been based on or focused on Chrome, really. It’s always been built atop Android. Even at IO 2010, they announced that Android apps would eventually run on the platform, but that functionality would come later.

Now, Google TV is being upgraded from a 2.x channel to the 3.x channel. Clearly the needed APIs weren’t part of 2.x.

Ryan Diederich says:

I was under the impression...

that Googles employees had a set amount of “free time” each day, with which they could work on anything they wanted; the only catch being all the IP belonged to Google. Aparently different groups of employees get together and create projects, this is how maps, gmail, Google Labs, etc were created.

If thats the case then I can see how this happened, but nonetheless they should really fix it. I say do away with Chrome as an OS and just make it the browser for Android. Simple Simple

McBeese says:

Another collision headed our way is OSX and iOS.

Jobs asserts that we’ve now entered the ‘Post-PC era’, so I expect to see Apple migrate towards a more iOS-like user experience for laptops. Not so sure about the Mac Pro Tower. After all, Jobs did say we would still need trucks for specialized heavy duty tasks.

A Mac Mini with a wireless touch-screen monitor interface might be pretty cool.

DannyB (profile) says:


I would point out that Steve Jobs seems to recognize that mobile devices are the future and traditional desktop OSes are the past.

Microsoft seems to also recognize this, but is unable to get out from the tarpit of their legacy OS.

Since Apple recognizes the trend and seems to have embraced it early on, they may avoid the innovator’s dilemma.

Anonymous Coward says:

First off, it’ nice to see an article that has something other than Copyright, Patents or abuses of our basic freedoms on Techdirt. Keep it up!

Secondly, my take on this:

Google needs to get it’s act together on the Android and start pushing it’s Chrome OS. Android 3.0 is a horrible mess, unsuitable for tablets, and, apparently, won’t ever run on smartphones (especially if Google doesn’t release the source, which it seems they won’t). Chrome OS looks like an interesting OS for the most basic of computing tasks (browsing the web, playing basic computer games and doing some (light?) “work”).

Now there’s just one thing: it seems to me that netbooks are becoming obsolete in face of tablet computers. Many tablets I’ve seen are now coming with a detachable keyboard and have support for a other external input devices (mouse), so the argument that “you don’t have a keyboard” doesn’t really apply anymore. So it’ll be interesting to see if Chrome OS will ever catch on, or if netbooks (chromebooks?) will die off.

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

Totally Agree

I spent the weekend watching my brother’s kids. While it was a great time and I certainly enjoyed seeing all the new things they could do, it was abundantly clear to me that his family is on a collision course with itself.

The four year-old and two year-old frequently compete for attention, space and toys. They are capable of playing together at times, but as the years pass it’s easy to see the conflict escalating. And it’s not obvious that my brother has any plan on what to do about it.

Two years ago, when my brother first announced the second baby strategy, my very first reaction was that it was going to lead to conflict with his toddler. And that was clearly on display this weekend. Asking my Niece and Nephew which was their father’s favorite child lead only to dancing around, mumbling and fits of unexplained crying.

The two children are clearly charting their own courses that seem to be starting to encroach on each other’s territory. Now, there’s something to be said for sibling rivalry. I’m pretty sure most great careers were launched in a gambit to sway parental favor. But at some point, my brother is going to have to merge these two children. Perhaps some would argue this would be appropriate later when they are teenagers, but it’s obvious that waiting until then would have more of an impact than it would now while they are young and adaptable.

My brother says he loves them both the same, but he’s obviously spent twice as much time raising the older child.

Matt H. (profile) says:

It's about the future!

One thing that nobody seems to be taking into account is that one day, we’ll most likely be running all of our applications from the cloud. With the current trend of increasing ability in a web browser, it will be less than ten years before we’re able to run things like Photoshop, Autocad, Premiere, and so on directly from the cloud. Nobody has to worry about upgrades, app launches, lost work, etc. It just all sits on a server somewhere and probably runs intensive operations on your local hardware (GPU/CPU), but not much more than that. It’s a great model, and that’s what Chrome OS is built for! The *next* generation of computing.

Android, on the other hand, is built for the current generation computing model–that is running native, platform-dependent apps. Presently this isn’t too bad a model since nobody has yet to come up with a good way to make cloud apps feel like they’re native apps. That’s a key consideration.

What Google doesn’t want is to bet everything on a model that we can already see being outdated and outclassed by next gen web apps. Hence, they’re already preparing for the day when generally native apps are taboo and web apps do literally almost everything you could possibly want. From a technical standpoint, this is hugely awesome! From a political standpoint though, there will definitely be privacy concerns and some pricing model issues. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens there.

So, yes–Android and Chrome OS *are* on a conflicting path. One holding fast to the “old” model of computing, and one to the “new.” I believe that when it becomes necessary, Google will probably create some sort of hybrid of the two to handle edge cases and to bring features of one to the other. They’ve alluded to this somewhat in the past, although they probably don’t quite have the perfect vision of what needs to happen either.

As far as what that hybrid will look like–it’s anyone’s guess. So, yes–they’re absolutely on a collision course, but no, that’s not a bad thing. When they do finally collide, I believe we’ll see a fusion of the two rather than a really bad accident.

Elwood Anderson says:

Chrome OS vs. Android

The dividing line between these two systems is between people who want to do real computing needing a fully functional keyboard and full screen verses those using touch or hunt and peck to dish out a few words on a more portable device or watch some video. This line will always be there.

So why did Google put Android and not Chrome OS on Google TV? The answer is kind of obvious. Only the Logitech Revue version of Google TV has a real keyboard, and all devices to date have single core processors. Some Google TV users want a computer on their big screen. Others (probably a majority) want something more like Apple TV or what is in all the Blu-Ray players. So Android fits the most current users. But, Google aims to satisfy the real computer users with Chromebox, basically a full blown Google TV with Chrome OS that real computer users want to sit in their easy chair doing their computing on the big screen.

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