Where Does Android Stop and Chrome Begin?

With Google targeting the netbook with both its Chrome and Android operating systems, which way should developers jump?

Should they pick Chrome, the browser that will soon become an OS and is likely to face strong competition from Microsoft and Apple?

Or should they go with Android, an OS that has so far been targeted mostly at smartphones, a category poised for strong growth?

A Portrait of the Browser as a Young OS

Efforts to use a browser as the operating system are not new. IBM is developing a new product built around a browser as an application platform in a project code named “Opus Una.”

IBM expects browsers to become increasingly standardized, allowing users to share widgets across them.

Google definitely wants to get into this market, and its CEO, Eric Schmidt, said at the annual Allen & Co. Sun Valley conference last week that Google has been pushing to create an operating system on the Web for years, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Technology blog.

Indeed, Google is advertising for software engineers on the FAQs About Chrome posting on its Web site. These job openings are at several offices, including San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif.; Kirkland, Wash.; and Montreal, Canada.

However, job descriptions differ among the sites, and based on a reading of the postings, it’s not quite clear what Google wants.

At the San Francisco office, the posting is for engineering and requires someone with a strong understanding of algorithms and data structures.

At the offices in Santa Monica and Seattle/Kirkland, the job postings are for software engineers to help develop Google’s next-generation search engine and related technologies.

At the Montreal office’s Web page, secrecy seems to be the rule — clicking on the link kicks off an email directly to the office, with no job description available.

It’s All So Confusing

By coming up with a second operating system for netbooks, Google has thrown the market for a loop, IDC Program Director Al Hilwa said.

“Developers should be worried now about Google’s commitment to Android, because if it didn’t adopt Android, the question is, why?” he told LinuxInsider.

Speculating that internal politics is the reason, Hilwa said Google needs to articulate a better strategy for having two operating systems.

“Until Chrome came out, they were positioning Android for a portfolio of devices ranging from embedded devices to smartphones to netbooks,” Hilwa said. “Apple managed to leverage one operating system for its mobile phone and laptops; why can’t Google?”

Chrome vs. Android

Chrome and Android will not target quite the same products, argued Wayne Kernochan, president of Infostructure Associates.

“There is only so far down in form factor Chrome can go or so far up that Android can go,” he told LinuxInsider.

Chrome will be a better platform for netbook users than Android, but that does not mean there will be one superior tool or operating system for all platforms.

“I would view the message for developers as that it may be wise to separate their tools for smartphones from those for laptops and desktops,” Kernochan said.

Developers should focus their netbook efforts on Chrome if they have a significant foothold in the laptop and desktop space, he added. If it’s too costly initially to support two operating systems, then they should focus their netbook efforts only on Android.

In the long run, Kernochan expects Chrome to move down to the smartphone in some format. “The combination of medium footprint, fast Web processing and security is too good a story not to show up on smartphones eventually as these scale in computing power,” he said.

However, IDC’s Hilwa sees things differently.

“Developers maybe should be thinking about freezing their adoption for now until Google articulates things more clearly,” he said. “The number of phones that run Android now is very small compared to Apple’s iPhone.”

Ultimately, things could look pretty bleak for developers trying to figure out whether to pick Android or Chrome.

“To maximize adoption, Google needs to have very clear positioning,” Hilwa said. “If they give an ambiguous message, their partners will sit on the fence, and it’ll cost them in terms of time and adoption.”

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