Google's decision to create a new Internet-centric OS for netbooks shows the limitations of the Android mobile OS for netbooks and raises questions about its future on those devices, developers and analysts said.
While Google is adamant that Chrome OS is a separate project with a separate design goal and not meant to replace Android, observers have wondered why Google would choose to form two OS projects for netbooks rather than adapt Android for netbooks and PCs, especially while some developers already have ported the OS to netbooks.
In its blog post explaining what Chrome OS is on Wednesday, Google continued to attest that Android is suitable for netbooks, while explaining the difference between it and Chrome OS.
“Android was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks,” the company wrote. “Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the Web, and is being designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems.”
The decision to create a different OS for netbooks rather than continue the work being done around Android “caught me off guard,” said Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research. “I thought that, given that Android was based on Linux, they'd be able to stretch it,” he said.
Indeed, others wondered why Google felt the need to create two OSes targeted at the netbook market, especially since Android is still relatively new and does not yet have a strong position in the mobile market against Apple's iPhone and other smartphones.
“If I was going to take a stab at it, I would say that it's a matter of Google wanting to emphasize Chrome, and/or perhaps not wanting to confuse people about Android's suitability for environments besides handsets,” said David Kirkpatrick, a New York-based independent software architect who has worked with Linux for more than 10 years.
Indeed, the Chrome browser is at the heart of the Chrome OS, and Android does not even use that browser in its environment, though it does include one based on the same WebKit open-source platform that the Chrome browser is based on.
Google's argument for two OS projects is that the Chrome OS marks an entirely new way of thinking about the operating environment for netbooks and PCs — with the browser at the center of the OS. All applications built for Chrome OS will be Web-based and thus able to be accessed from any browser, according to Google.
“It's Google's way of saying, 'We want to create an alternative,'” Forrester's Gillett said. “They're not trying to displace the PC-centric stuff. For people who want to live purely in the new world, they are providing a simple way to access online services.”
Some Android developers agreed it makes sense to have two projects — even if they are concerned about what this means for Google's long-term commitment to Android — because Android running on netbooks has its flaws.
“I think it's going to be pretty disheartening for those people who are working on Android, but I think it's from their experiences that the need for a separate OS with a different focus has come about,” said Al Sutton, technology director for Funky Android, a company that develops Android applications. “There has been some success with getting Android onto some notebooks, but there has always been the issue that the user experience is a bit clunky when compared to OSes designed for those devices.”
Some of the problems stem from Android being designed for touch-screen devices, whereas most netbooks still have a keyboard and need an OS designed to provide that kind of device capability, he said.
Another Android developer, Mariano Kamp, agreed that Android has design limitations for netbooks, but said the next version will fare better, particularly when adapting the OS to a larger-screened device.
“There is work under way to improve the situation,” he said. “The next release of Android will officially support higher-resolution screens.”
Still, developers worry that Google may make the same mistakes with Chrome OS that it's made with Android. By licensing it under the Apache open-source license, Google did not require developers to make public their modifications to Android code, leaving some to wonder whether Android will become fragmented as incompatible versions appear in different types of devices.
Sutton worried that Google will use Linux as its base for the Chrome OS but act purely in its own self-interest, and not respect the work of the Linux groups already porting the OS to netbooks.
“I can see how throwing their weight behind one single group could have a negative effect on the Linux ecosystem — after all, who would want to compete with a Google-backed Linux distribution?” he said. “But I hope they're going to feed their work back into the community and not create something akin to the Android situation, where although the base OS is available, there are several components which Google keeps behind closed doors.”