Google's plans to release computer software were instantly seen as an attempt to tread on Microsoft's turf. The impact of the new operating system, Chrome OS, probably won't be felt in Redmond any time soon. Where Chrome OS will have a more immediate—and, likely, profound—impact is in Google's own backyard: on a project called Android.
The company's efforts will now be divided between potentially competing operating systems, and some analysts speculate Google will de-emphasize Android for such devices as netbooks. Software developers may also be forced to choose between the two systems, with many favoring Chrome OS. As a result, the quality and versatility of Android may suffer and it may become a less attractive option for makers of computers and other electronics. "Chrome will result in more fragmentation," says Andrew Brown, a director at Strategy Analytics, a consulting firm. "It also suggests Google may scale back [efforts related to] Android for netbooks."
Android, introduced last year by a group of companies led by Google (GOOG), was initially designed to run mobile phones, though developers were increasingly inclined to put it on a wider array of computing devices. It already powers smartphones like the T-Mobile G1. A number of companies have also been looking at using Android in larger Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), netbooks, set-top boxes, and even televisions, according to Google. "We are being very supportive to the [developer] community targeting these devices," Andy Rubin, senior director of mobile platforms at Google, told BusinessWeek.com earlier this year.
Speculation about a Scaleback
In June, PC maker Acer announced it will release its first Android-based Aspire One netbook; the computer is due to become available in the third quarter. "In addition to Microsoft's operating system, the majority of Acer netbooks will also offer Android in the future," the company said in a statement at the time. A startup called Touch Revolution is developing an Android-based kitchen computer. Even Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), the world's largest PC maker, has been considering using Android.
Now, though, some analysts speculate Google may drastically scale back its Android ambitions, which might put some computer makers' plans in limbo. In announcing Chrome OS, even Google acknowledged the potential for rivalry between the two systems. "While there are areas where Google Chrome OS and Android overlap, we believe choice will drive innovation for the benefit of everyone, including Google," the company said in a blog entry. The first netbooks running Chrome are due to be released in the second half of 2010.
Question marks around Google's Android strategy inevitably affect big Android supporters like HTC, maker of the only Android-based computing devices now on sale in the U.S., and Motorola (MOT), a troubled mobile-phone maker that has a lot riding on Android's success. Indeed, with the lines blurring between handheld wireless devices such as smartphones and MIDs that surf the Net on one hand, and small netbook computers on the other, some analysts including Richard Doherty, director at research firm Envisioneering Group, see a future where smartphones run Chrome OS instead of Android. "We wouldn't rule out that Chrome could be a TV OS," he says. "Google's not finished yet."
Less Support for Android?
HTC says it isn't worried: "We don't really see it having any effect [on our Android efforts] at all," HTC spokesman Keith Nowak says. But experts say that, if it rallies behind Chrome, Google may provide less support to Android. Motorola didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Even if Google doesn't dial down support for Android, Chrome's introduction may still leave Android on fewer devices. In 2011, Chrome may capture 13% of the netbook operating-system market, while Android will end up with 7%, says Strategy Analytics. Several computer makers including HP are already in discussions with Google over whether and how to include Chrome on their devices.
But if Android was destined for a range of devices beyond cell phones, why introduce Chrome? Microsoft (MSFT) has separate flavors of its software for mobile phones and PCs, notes Rob Enderle, president of tech researcher Enderle Group. So if Google is to compete with Microsoft, it, too, may need separate systems, he says.
Plenty of Unknowns
Chrome also gives Google options in wireless. Currently, there's debate within the industry whether phones will resemble mini-computers with lots of computing power; in that case, Android would be the more appropriate software. Another view is that cell phones of the future might be relatively cheap, stripped-down devices designed mainly to help users get onto the Web. In that scenario, the Web-based Chrome would be the better fit. "There's going to be a wide variety of software and hardware platforms until people figure out what works and what doesn't," says Rob Chandhok, a vice-president at Qualcomm (QCOM), which makes chips used in smartphones and netbooks.
Android may not have been ramping up quickly enough for Google. While at least 18 Android-based devices are due this year, currently only one, the G1, is widely available for sale in the U.S. T-Mobile USA has sold more than 1 million G1 units. That's a drop in the bucket in the vast cell-phone market, where more than 1 billion units are sold annually.
Chrome may help Google grab a larger overall share of the wireless market by tapping into a larger pool of developers. Because it executes applications in a Web-based environment, Chrome can be worked on by the millions of developers who already create applications for the Web. The number of developers working on Android-friendly apps is small compared with the legions building apps for Apple's (AAPL) iPhone.
Android Netbook Not in Danger
Some developers are scratching their heads over Google's plans for Android. "I just do not see why they want to introduce two platforms when one platform is good enough," says David Young, president of international business at startup Borqs, which creates Android-based software and services for wireless service providers.
Borq is working with at least one manufacturer that plans to release an Android-based netbook. On July 10, it announced a $17.4 million round of funding led by Norwest Venture Partners. "We would not have invested in Borqs if it wasn't for the smartphone market," says Mohan Kumar, an executive director at NVP. While the deal closed before the Chrome announcement, "it would not have mattered to us," Kumar says. "We'd still have gone ahead."
It's far from certain that the rest of the industry retains that same level of enthusiasm for Android in light of Chrome.