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Why Google Tapped Android Over Chrome as Its Marquee OS

Android is a big deal for Google. It is Google's portal for the smartphone market, where it maintains a global dominance. It is also Google's choice of operating system for newfangled computing platforms, like wearables and cars.

And it may soon eat away at the primary home of Google's other operating system, Chrome.

Starting next year, the company will work with partners to build personal computers that run on Android, according to sources familiar with the company's plans. The Chrome browser and operating systems aren't disappearing — PC makers that produce Chromebooks will still be able to use Chrome. But they will now have the choice of Android. And its arrival suggests the supremacy of mobile inside Google, which has prioritized how to best handle the shift away from desktop across all its divisions.

The Wall Street Journal earlier reported the change.

Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google
Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google

Google has been taking baby steps in this direction for years. Even back in 2009, when they launched Chrome, co-founder emeritus Sergey Brin suggested the two systems may merge. The convergence momentum began two years ago when Sundar Pichai took the reins of both operating systems. Last year, after Pichai was promoted to SVP of all products, he appointed Hiroshi Lockheimer, his anointed successor, as engineering lead for Android and the Chrome OS.

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The company even gave us a hint. At its recent Nexus event, Google released its first Pixel C tablet that runs on Android. On the company earnings call last week, Pichai, now CEO, gave another, telling investors "mobile as a computing paradigm is eventually going to blend with what we think of as desktop today." Turns out, eventually is coming soon.

So, why now?

Scale

Google loves scale. It shutters products with user numbers that many companies would kill for (remember Reader?) because they don't reach the billion-plus of its flagships. Chrome primarily lives on Chromebook devices. Gartner estimates Google will ship 7.9 million devices this year. Android, Google recently announced, crossed 1.4 billion users. Very different scale.

Despite some traction, Chromebooks are still a tiny slice of the market, and Google has faced difficulty corralling developers to build apps for it. It hasn't had the same problem with Android.

Simplicity

For some time, Google has struggled to juggle both operating systems. (It's still doing so on television, simultaneously running Android TV and Chromecast.) It's expensive to maintain both and can be confusing for device makers. Pichai likes streamlining. People who have worked with him describe a focus on simplifying Google's products and historically Byzantine organization, an effort crystalized in a push for a uniform face on products for users and partners, what the company calls "One Google."

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However, a key advantage Chrome has is one of Android's weaknesses. The mobile OS has suffered a nagging security issues, driven largely by its reliance on carriers and a gamut of device makers to push out updates. As an OS, Chrome is sturdier on security. That's one reason Google may not ditch Chrome. Its security credentials help it with sales to enterprise, particularly to schools, where Chromebook has seen considerable traction; Gartner said the devices will account for 72 percent of the education market this year.

Mobile, Mobile, Mobile

Perhaps the critical reason Google is favoring Android is its birthplace: Mobile phones. The greatest threat to the Alphabet company is that its revenue, derived largely from desktop advertising, will dwindle as smartphone usage spreads. If it's done anything this year (save the whole Alphabet thing), Google has manically reiterated that it does, in fact, have a cohesive plan for mobile. A chief Android distinction from Chrome is that it is built for mobile behavior.

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A vote for Android is, in some ways, a tacit admission that Google must devote its attention to the devices on which it lives.

"Mobile gives us unique opportunities in terms of better understanding users," Pichai said on the earnings call. "My long-term view on this is it is as compelling or, in fact, even better than desktop, but it will take us time to get there and we are going to be focused until we get there."

Update: Lest you think Chrome is on the way out, Lockheimer, now SVP of Android, Chrome OS and Chromecast, says it is not.

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