If Linux will ever succeed on the desktop it may very well be through Android. If -- and that’s a big if – reports can be trusted. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Google is working on merging Chrome OS into Android and may preview the new OS at Google I/O in 2016, with a launch in 2017.
There are many reasons why Android makes more sense than Chrome OS for everyone… Google, hardware vendors, software developers and most importantly users.
However, these numbers are peanuts compared to the sale of Android devices. In the second quarter of 2015 alone companies sold over 271 million Android devices.
The simple fact is that smartphone shipments have overtaken PC shipments. And Android controls over 82% of the smartphone market.
The app and content ecosystem
Due to its massive popularity, Android has a huge app and content ecosystem. There are over 1.5 million apps in the Google Play Store and many more 3rd party apps that are not available through the official app store.
By comparison, ‘apps’ on Chrome OS are more or less glorified extensions or websites. There are certain packaged apps that can run locally but the number is so low that Google doesn’t even want to talk about it. Developers are not interested in Chrome OS due to it’s tiny and niche user base. Google tried to bridge the app-gap by creating a mechanism to run Android apps on Chrome OS, but that move failed to get much traction from developers.
Android has captured almost every segment of the mobile market – from students to average consumers, to researchers, enthusiasts, and business users. All thanks to wide range of hardware and an open app ecosystem. At the same time, it is limited by only being on mobile devices.
Chrome OS, meanwhile, is limited to those users who live their lives on the web; it’s more or less a thin client to access the web.
What will I pick?
I am a heavy user of Android and Chrome OS. I love my Nexus 6P and I love my ASUS Chromebook Flip. Both have their pros and cons. One particular pro is that on Chromebook I can use multiple apps simultaneously, just like any laptop. This type of multi-tasking is not possible on stock Android, which prevents it from becoming my production OS.
Recently, more and more offline capabilities are coming to Chrome OS; so I can get my work done without the Internet.
That said, there are a handful of reasons my Chromebook remains a secondary devices that I use at home.
The lack of developer interest in Chromebooks is a significant drawback. I am a heavy user of image and video editing software and Photoshop or Lightroom are not available for Chrome OS.
Email is also a big challenge on Chromebooks because I use multiple email addresses – for work and personal use. You can’t log into certain Google services such as Analytics if you are using multiple accounts, which makes it harder for people to use Chromebook between work and personal life. (Android doesn’t have this problem thanks to dedicated email clients.)
Also, since there is no Java runtime environment for Chrome OS, there are many services that require Java that don’t work on Chromebook. If you are traveling, connecting to local printers and scanners is a huge challenge.
Benefits of merger
The merger will benefit all involved parties: customers, partners, developers and Google itself.
Customers will be able to use a well supported platform on their devices and be able to use those 1.5 + million apps and services. It won’t be catering to a niche segment; they won’t have to worry about not being able to print documents or scan documents; they won’t have to worry about not being able to use certain services or devices.
Android on desktop could help revive the declining PC market, as a better app and content ecosystem will make it easier for hardware vendors to sell devices.
Third-party hardware vendors who manufacture accessories will also get a boost. As it is now, it’s impossible to get third party hardware such as DSLR cameras to work with Chrome OS devices; and I have many such devices.
It will help app developers by giving them a bigger userbase. And desktop Android will enable these developers to write even more powerful apps.
And, of course, it will help Google. Instead of having to maintain two different operating systems, where one is lagging far behind, Google can invest all of its resources and mindshare in one operating system.
The biggest point is that Android is capable of doing all of that Chrome OS can do. Google doesn’t need a cloud only operating system anymore.
The return of Windows based PCs as best selling on Amazon should already be a concern for Google because compared to Chromebooks, people can do much more on a Windows PC. Things will change with Android as it will lure back even hardcore Windows fans who can access all of their Microsoft apps and services from Android.
Challenges for Android on desktop
It won’t be a smooth ride for Android on the desktop. There are some serious challenges that Google has to sort out and one of them is fragmentation. Google is paying a huge price by letting OEMs and carriers wield complete control over the operating system. Google will have to get rid of all the unwanted bloatware and custom skinning OEMs and carriers do.
Then Google will have to reclaim system updates. Currently OEMs and carriers are in complete control of updates and they delay these updates for months and even years. This has lead to millions of Android devices that are either not patched or running a version that is no longer supported. Google changed the game for everyone by deploying a unique update model for Chrome OS. As a result, neither OEMs nor carriers have any say in system updates; Chromebooks always run the latest version of Chrome. As a result there is zero fragmentation and no security issue for Chromebooks. Google should use the Chrome OS update model for the new OS.
Another big challenge for Android will be the windowed apps, which means users can run multiple apps simultaneously, on a bigger screen.
Challenges of merger
The biggest question in users' minds is what going to happen to their existing Chrome OS devices. Home users may not worry too much as their devices cost a mere $200, but businesses and schools that deployed Chromebooks might be nervous. And Google is not helping them by stating that they are committed to Chrome OS. The reports of merging the two OSes will discourage potential buyers from investing in a platform that has an uncertain future.
I don’t really know what will happen to current devices. It may be possible that through an OTA update Google could replace Chrome OS with the new operating system. Samsung did something similar on their smartwatches when they replaced Android with Tizen.
Thanks to everything being in the cloud, users won’t lose any data. It will move with them. Google may throw a warning to backup local data before running the update.
An OTA update may break the workflow of some users, but almost all Chrome OS apps are already available on Android and the transition would be less dramatic than the move from Windows 7 to Windows 8.
I see the merger of Chrome OS with Android as a win-win situation for everyone. There is not a single drawback of this proposition. The merger of Chrome OS, which has a niche market, and Android, which dominates mobile but is largely missing on desktops, will create a Linux-based operating system that could dominate both areas.
The year of Linux may be coming!
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