Android vs. Chrome: The Inevitable Showdown

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I spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday this week at Google’s massive I/O developer shindig in San Francisco. And then I wrote a Technologizer column for on the first day’s keynote, which was jam-packed with Android news. But I could just have easily written a column about day two’s keynote, which was devoted to Google’s Chrome browser and Chrome OS, the operating system that thinks it’s a browser. (The first Chrome OS laptops to go on sale, from Samsung and Acer, are arriving on June 15th.)

And really, I could have written an entire column on the question of why Google has two mobile operating systems at all. They’re not identical. Android is fairly traditional–it’s a feature-packed piece of software that runs locally–and is designed to work on phones, tablets, TV boxes, and an array of other gizmos, some of which probably haven’t been invented yet. Chrome OS is a new approach to operating systems–it puts as little software on the devices as possible, assuming that users will mostly be using Web services–and runs, so far, only on laptops and on a Mac Mini-like tiny desktop which Samsung announced yesterday.

But it does feel like the two approaches are on a collision course. As the world turns to Web services, Android will need to be as good at them as Chrome OS already is. And if the Chrome OS approach works, it won’t make sense to restrict it to traditional form factors such as desktops and laptops–it’ll be a natural for tablets, set-top boxes, and maybe even phones.

Only a cheerfully idiosyncratic, extremely well-heeled company such as Google would pursue both routes in the first place–and it probably helped that the Chrome OS project originated two years ago, before Android was a massive hit and before the iPad era began. It’s hard to imagine both platforms continuing on independent of each other forever, though.

If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Android: it already has tremendous momentum and is on a hundred million devices. Chrome OS still has an experimental feel to it, and it’s going to be a while before it’s clear whether the world is ready for it.

But I’m not a betting man–or at least I’m not comfortable that I have this situation figured out. Do you think the Internet’s big enough for both of these operating systems to flourish indefinitely?