Today, an editorial I read on the technology news site Electronista (Formerly MacNN) inspired me to begin thinking about what the future of tablet computing may hold. The editorial above posits that Google may be its own biggest enemy in competing with Apple for tablet dominance, through having two operating systems in the fight.
First, and foremost in the minds of consumers and technology pundits, is the Android operating system used by many popular cell phones and so far unpopular tablet devices.
Second, Google is on the verge of releasing Chrome OS which I will describe in further detail later on in this article.
The primary thrust of the Electronista article is that Google, by having two incompatible operating systems in what is likely to be seen as a singular “tablet space” on the market, is more likely to be competing with itself than it is with Apple. In order to properly examine the claims made by Don Reisinger in his article, it is important to evaluate just where Android stands today and where Chrome OS is likely to stand in the forseeable future.
Android OS is by far the simplest of Google’s options to compare with the existing feature set offered by Apple’s iOS based devices. As the vast majority of Android devices are cellular phones, the cleanest comparison is between phones such as the Motorola Droid and the iPhone 4. Each phone has its strengths and weaknesses, some of which are based on hardware, but most of which stem from differences in the operating system and developer support. The intent of this article is not to compare the systems feature-for-feature, but to simply state that Android and iOS belong in the same class of operating system – they are by and large fully featured, user-alterable systems that run standalone applications and interface with other devices.
A far less clear comparison is the one that arises by including Chrome OS in the mix. Chrome is not a known quantity by many, though information about the system has been circulating among the tech-savvy since at least 2008 when its existence was largely a rumor. Officially only begun in 2009, development on Chrome took a far different focus than the work Google had already been doing on the Android system. In the eyes of many pundits and watchers including myself, Chrome was going to be a direct competitor to the Microsoft dominance of the desktop.
We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The structure of Chrome has been explained as a web-based system, leveraging a network connection and applications designed largely to be based on a remote server. With an interface designed for simplicity, and an underlying system with a heavier focus on security than user modification, Chrome is expected to be used on devices with steady network connections and a limited requirement for users to create content or applications. Additionally, official Chrome OS devices will only be sold by companies approved by Google, implementing features in ways that Google requires. Users will not be able to download Chrome OS and install it on their own hardware, a tactic that carries strong echoes of the Apple, Microsoft or RIM approaches to the tablet and phone OS markets.
Reisinger’s article posits that Google will, by offering both Chrome OS and Android to consumers, splinter the marketplace and cause serious problems for itself. He suggests that Google will struggle with growing both the Android and Chrome market shares, with consumers confused about which operating system will be the most appropriate. I see a problem as well, but I cannot simply agree with Reisinger’s reasoning or conclusion.
Android and Chrome OS may both be offered in tablet forms, but the core functionality will be quite different, and the first indicator pundits should have of this difference is in the name of Chrome OS itself. Chrome is the name of Google’s web browser, now on the market and competing with Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari. By choosing to call this new system Chrome OS, Google is being quite clear in telling potential buyers that this OS is intended to leverage the power of the web. I believe that this message will eventually be conveyed, and that Chrome OS devices will make quite a distinctive impact on the market in 2011 and beyond.
The future of Android is far less clear. Currently the darling of the “not an iPhone” market, the Android operating system has made huge gains. In the first half of 2010, Android devices actually outsold iOS based models, largely on the strength of Verizon’s introduction of the Motorola Droid in late 2009. The Droid, marketed as “doing what iDon’t” by Verizon, struck a nerve with the Apple faithful while finally offering clear temptation to many users who either could not, or would not choose to do business with AT&T or Apple. Droid, released with the then-new Android 2.0 operating system, finally felt like a true market-ready product unlike the somewhat limited devices sold previously with the far more limited 1.x versions of Android. The 2.0 system was reasonably fast, reasonably stable, and reasonably good looking. When updated to 2.1 only three months later, prospects for the system looked even stronger.
Unfortunately, Android’s ugly past continued to get in the way.
Phone after phone continued to be released with older versions of Android. Mobile carriers started seeing older versions of Android as a viable option for cheaper, less costly handsets. Device manufacturers decided to encourage this mentality, by offering cut-spec devices at cheaper prices. Through the use of older Android versions such as 1.5 and 1.6, these companies released a steady stream of underpowered and disappointing hardware. And due to Google allowing virtually any manufacturer to use Android in one form or another, the practice flourished.
The worst and most recent offender in this trend is Dell Computers. Having toyed with phone development in the past, Dell finally decided to release an Android based handset only three days ago on August 24th, 2010. Just shy of 10 months after the release of Android 2.0, the Dell Aero shipped to consumers with a base operating system of 1.6.
In addition to providing devices with outdated versions of Android, manufacturers like Dell, HTC and Motorola also tend to offer devices with customized user interfaces. With this, one Android device may look almost entirely different from another, and both of those may appear almost completely distinct from a Google “base” system.
Most of this article has focused on the cellular phone market, and at the current time, that’s where the real fight is happening. The iPad occupies a space nearly entirely to itself, rapidly chewing away at the netbook market. Where many pundits decried the iPad as a threat to the eBook reader market, market projections for the dedicated devices seem to be on the move for heavy growth based on low pricing that Apple will most likely never attempt to match.
Android on the other hand, has been primarily marketed as intended for mobile phones. One of Google’s few restrictions on Android use, has been to limit the installation of the Android Market application store to mobile phones only. This is most likely due to piracy controls and unique device identification ability, which would not typically be included in a tablet device such as the iPad when manufactured by companies less concerned with such matters than Apple. As such, Android has yet to appear in a heavily adopted device in tablet form. Many inexpensive options exist, largely as Chinese iPad knockoffs, but these devices typically sport outdated versions of Android or manage to be unavailable for actual purchase.
Chrome OS appears to be ready to avoid those pitfalls. Though Google has released the source code as required by the GNU Public License used by many of its Linux-based underpinnings, the resulting software known as Chromium OS is unlikely to see widespread adoption due to an expected lack of manufacturer support. Companies using Chrome OS will be required to get Google’s sign-off on new hardware releases, giving Google a much tighter grip on the quality and presentation of the Chrome OS brand.
Ironically, Chrome OS might also serve as a savior of sorts for Android. As Google develops services and features for Chrome OS, it is almost a certainty that those features will be rolled into future releases of Android. As Android matures and Chrome OS rises, it is likely that fragmentation in the Android space will decrease while the low-tier manufacturers focus on low-cost Google-blessed Chrome OS devices as opposed to unsatisfying Android offerings. Running Chrome OS will take much of the support hassle away from device manufacturers, and place the largest burden of design and development on Google’s shoulders.
Taking all of the above into account, it is difficult for me to make a clear prediction as to who will “win” the tablet wars to come. Apple will certainly sell millions of devices, and Google’s twin systems will find themselves in other millions. Android and Chrome OS may, combined, even grow to dwarf the installed user base of iOS systems over a multi-year period; with the trend in sales of Android devices, this is a far more likely event than many would have suspected only a year ago. I do believe it is fair to say that the rise of Chrome OS – provided that hardware is significantly less expensive than Apple’s iPad offering – and a truly connected way of delivering information, bode well for Google’s fortunes.
Disclaimer, I own both an Apple iPad and Motorola Droid. My previous cellular phone was an iPhone 3G.