Ever since Chrome OS was announced, the excitement for the operating system seemed to be matched by the curiosity of its purpose. Shortly after the initial announcement, when the CR-48 devices were being shipped, I remember being asked repeatedly “If I have an Android phone and a tablet, do I really need a cloud computer?” To be honest, I didn’t have a good answer for them.
Chrome OS fills a use case that most Android tablets don’t fully reach, and the same goes for the opposite direction. So, the issue fizzled out a bit until Google I/O, when the release of the ChromeBooks brought back the same set of questions. This time, however, Google was equipped with an autoresponder to the sound of “we’re not currently exploring other form factors for Chrome OS” when prompted.
Since then, however, analysts have begun speculating as to whether or not Google is playing with the idea of a “Chrome Phone” behind the scenes.
In a recent article on The Street, Anton Wahlman provided an extremely detailed breakdown of whether or not Google was planning to stick Chrome OS into a phone-shaped device. Among the many reasons that were stuffed into the article, the most prominent seemed to be his notions of competition and control.
It’s true that both Motorola and Samsung have announced plans for cloud based phones slated in 2012. There are those that would draw lines indicating that Samsung and Motorola would be making this move in response to the SkyHook debacle. It is indeed possible that both companies were rubbed the wrong way by Google’s strong-arm tactics in this matter, but it seems much more likely to me that these companies are looking at the rebirth of the feature-phone.
Ah, the feature-phone.
Customers love them because they can get them for their kids for next to nothing, carriers love them because they provide the additional revenue of a dataplan without all that pesky data usage, and manufacturers love to make them because they run on essentially recycled parts, making the devices significantly higher in profit. A cloud-based feature-phone would be perfect, since they’d run on slower hardware, require next to no storage, and wouldn’t even need an SD card slot. The cost for the manufacturer goes way down, but the profit per device is still more than they get from a smartphone.
Still, even if Samsung and Motorola aren’t doing this to spite Google, there’s no reason Google shouldn’t respond. After all, they’ve got this shiny new cloud based toy. Why not try to stuff it into a low-power phone to see if it dances? As an added bonus, Google would have a completely secure and controlled OS on a phone-shaped thing of their own design. That’s awesome, right?
We Android fans are all about open, but it’s really not any secret that Google kind of isn’t. Their apps are all closed source, they get really cranky if you try to include them in roms, and then there’s that pesky DRM block for rooted phones that came up recently. Oh yeah, open like a tank. Still, the nature of Android allows the extremely clever to find ways around it and provide some really cool, unique experiences, which is awesome.
The Chrome OS environment is completely secure, and totally controlled by Google. In many ways, that’s a really good thing. Chrome remains to this day one of the most secure user experiences on the web, and their sandboxing methods have probably kept more viruses from computers than there are stars in the sky. Obviously the Web Store on Chrome is no Android Market, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find Google looking to shoehorn the Market onto a “Chrome Phone”.
Well, that was the “bending facts to suit theories” portion of this exercise, based primarily on the information in the article I mentioned. Now, let’s take a stroll down the “bending theories to suit facts” side of this street!
Android is huge. So huge, in fact, that Andy Rubin described it as no longer being something you bought in a store and took home, but something that existed to bring your home to you. Plus, it’s got that sort of “aged to perfection” thing going for it right now. It’s not perfect, but Android as it exists right now is a culmination of the trials and errors that brought those developers to this conclusion.
So is it likely that Chrome OS would be able to fill Androids shoes in the mobile space? I doubt it, but that doesn’t mean that Chrome and Android couldn’t learn a few things form each other.
The Android browser is extremely powerful for a mobile browser. Put it next to even the most recent BlackBerry, and you’ll laugh yourself to death and how good you have it. That’s not to say it couldn’t get better. An Android phone, or tablet, turbocharged by the power and dexterity of Chrome? That would be an impressive thing indeed.
If you didn’t pick up on this with the Nexus S, and if you’ve ever used a ChromeBook you’d know, Google really wants to hold on to all of that data for you, and would prefer that you not mess with those bothersome SD cards. This isn’t so much a “it’s happening tomorrow so throw your cards away” but the trend across all of Google’s products is there.
With all of the belt tightening going on with the carriers, a device that lived 100% in the cloud will be problematic for users. It will be difficult to sell someone on the ideals of being “always on the web” when there’s a meter counting down every time you wake the device. Unless Google goes and buys Sprint, there’s going to be some problems there.
Is a Chrome OS phone on the way? That was the question right? It seems likely to me that what is coming will much more closely resembles a smarter, hybridized solution. Pushing everything to the cloud will decrease the performance required of the hardware, and securing the device within a sandbox will allow Google to innovate at a pace that they see fit. Chrome gets updated on a ridiculously fast cycle, do you know how amazing it would be if Android were able to do the same? Of course, we lose the ability to call ourselves open at that handoff, and it could be that things like ROMs fade into obscurity.
In short, I don’t think that Chrome OS will be stuffed into a phone-shaped thing, but rather it will be blended with existing products to create something new, or at least new-ish.