Android and Chrome OS: Google’s split attention between two overlapping platforms has long come in for criticism, but rumors of a merge in time for the Chromebook Pixel failed to pan out. Then again, is the world ready for a $1,300 Chromebook, no matter whether it runs Android or Chrome OS? Perhaps not, Google’s director of Android user experience, Matias Duarte, says, but there’s more in Pixel’s prescience of the touchscreen future, he argues.
Pixel’s appeal on a purely hardware basis is undeniable: it’s a beautifully designed notebook, with an incredibly high resolution touchscreen and the same crisp lines that we liked from Google’s first Cr-48 Chromebook. However, its huge price puts Chrome OS up against full notebooks from Apple, Sony, and others, despite the relative limitations of the cloud-centric platform, a completely different market from earlier, highly affordable Chromebooks.
For Duarte, however, Pixel’s success won’t solely be measured by pure sales. “I think that Pixel is really exciting, because I think that Pixel shows the way that the boundaries between the different types of computing are blurring” he explained to us. “I think it’s great that the Chrome team is doing that, I think it’s great that the Chrome team is allowing Google to get into people’s lives with touchscreens on a desktop form-factor.”
That’s not a point of view shared by everybody in the industry, and in fact it puts Duarte and Google in the same camp as Microsoft and its hardware partners, rather than with Apple. Steve Jobs memorably decried the usability of touch notebooks, and Tim Cook has since made similar arguments, that reaching across a keyboard to tap at a display simply isn’t ergonomically satisfying.
Duarte disagrees, saying that despite what the MacBook makers think, users themselves are asking for a touchscreen approach. “I think that’s a real trend, that touch on laptops and on desktop form-factors is the way that people want to interact with computers” he says. “I think every screen should be a touchscreen in the future, regardless if it has a keyboard or not.”
Despite the overlap, then, between Android – which has touch at its heart – and Chrome OS – designed for more traditional form-factors – the two platforms still have a future as independent projects. According to Duarte, that will be the case for as long as it makes functional sense: the two OSes converging, perhaps, on a commonality of features as Google develops them.
“Google is excellent at diversifying, and experimenting” he told us. “And I think what Chrome OS does well – they’re getting better at, and it’s being reflected in what Android does well in succession – Chrome on Android is the best browser we’ve ever had, and we would not be at that level without the Chrome team doing the work that they do, without the Chrome OS team learning the things that they do, and learning to understand, for example, how to work on touchscreens.”
Meanwhile, what was originally a smartphone, and then a tablet, OS has been gaining more functionality to bring it in line with a desktop platform, though Duarte says that it’s still not quite there year. “Of course Android has also been evolving, and I think it’s terrific the way that we are gaining capabilities on a day-by-day basis” he said. “For example in Jelly Bean we announced multi-user support, and that opens up a range of use-cases, but ultimately, still, the two platforms meet different needs.”
That also means Android playing more readily with accessories and other devices, as it continues its trend toward being the one “OS for humanity” as Duarte himself described it. “One of the things that was great that we did in Honeycomb, was we included much better support for peripherals” the designer said. “So if you go hook up your Nexus 10 to a Bluetooth keyboard, or even a Bluetooth trackpad, you’ll find you have a much better experience with that.”
Despite the convergence that has already happened, Duarte points out however, neither Android nor Chrome OS are at the point where they satisfy the overall needs of all users. “Until we have one solution for Google that can really capture everything, it makes sense for us to continue to develop two platforms” he explained. Exactly how long that development will take is unclear, but it may take some time before Chrome OS – or a flavor of it – achieves the same market dominance as Android enjoys.