Last week, a report from the Wall Street Journal said that Google is going to "fold Chrome OS into Android" by 2017, and that Google will show a preview of it as early as next year. Android now has over 1.4 billion active users globally, while Chrome OS still has only millions and a growth rate that can't match Android anytime soon (if ever). Thanks to Android's popularity, Google's new OS for notebooks could be the company's biggest competitor to Windows yet.
Windows has been declining in market share in the past few quarters, despite the launch of Windows 10 this summer. Because the upgrade was free, many chose to upgrade their old PCs to Windows 10 instead of buying new machines.
At some point, most people will still buy new PCs, but the rate at which they are doing it is slowing down. Many people prefer to prolong the lives of their notebooks and PCs and instead use the money they would have spent on new PCs to upgrade their smartphones.
In some ways, Android is already winning here, because most of the smartphones being purchased globally run Android. However, people will still need PCs for work even if smartphones eventually can fill 100 percent of their computing needs in their free time.
For a long time, there has been effectively only one real choice for PCs for most of the world -- Windows. However, Google could change this, especially in emerging markets, where for many people, Android is the only operating system they know.
Why Android Can Succeed Where Chrome OS Couldn't
Chrome OS got a few things right -- most importantly, on security. Chrome OS is likely the most secure operating system out there. However, this is true not just because Google's engineers thought of security from the ground up when they built it, but because it can mainly run only web applications, which can be sandboxed and isolated from the operating system almost completely.
Because that's also a limitation in functionality compared to other operating systems, Google has already been on a path to add more native application capabilities, from turning web apps into native apps with Native Client, to more recently allowing Android apps to run on Chrome OS.
At some point -- let's say 10 years from now -- it's likely Chrome OS would have become just another full-blown operating system, with many of the vulnerabilities full operating systems have, too. However, Google can't afford to wait another 10 years, and even if the OS itself would have all the capabilities it needs to run all sorts of native applications, it doesn't necessarily mean it would have been extremely popular 10 years from now.
Android is already popular with almost a billion and a half users, which is roughly Windows' installed base right now, and its store contains 1.6 million apps. Granted, most of those apps likely wouldn't be of much use on a desktop computer anyway, but it shows the reach Android has with developers. If there were enough Android-based notebooks out there, chances are high that there would soon be many PC-style applications for these Android machines, too.
We've already seen Microsoft itself bring Office (opens in new tab) and many of its other productivity apps to Android tablets and smartphones. If Microsoft is already doing this because the Android install base is so large now that it can't be ignored, then other companies, small and large, would build productivity apps for Android PCs, too.
It also wouldn't be the first time Google has created an extension of Android in order to optimize it for a certain market. We have Android TV for smart TVs, Android Wear for smart watches, Android Auto for car entertainment systems, and even Brillo, the stripped-down Android OS for the Internet of Things.
The reason Google has already used extensions of Android for all of these markets instead of creating new operating systems is because of Android's enormous popularity and because it didn't want to create so much redundancy for its developers.
Why Android PCs Have Failed In The Past
Multiple companies have tried retrofitting Android for PCs for many years and have inevitably failed. The reason they failed is the same reason Windows 8 failed to gain significant traction on PCs and tablets.
Instead of a "one size fits all" user interface that works from smart watches to TVs, and only serves perhaps one of those many categories well, you need multiple solutions, each optimized for their form factors. Google didn't put the smartphone UI on smart watches and TVs. However, many other companies did use that interface for their Android-powered notebooks, and then nobody wanted those devices.
Google actually made a similar mistake with Chrome OS itself in the early days, by using a mostly browser-like UI for its entire operating system. It wasn't until Google added a taskbar and a better multi-window system to Chrome OS that many started considering Chrome OS as "practical." It wasn't the functionality that changed that much, but the interface itself, making it more appealing to users of "full operating systems."
Until Android gets its "PC look," too, it won't succeed on notebook-like devices either, and nobody, including Google, should be surprised by that. However, it seems not much has changed for the company's upcoming Pixel C device. Instead of a more optimized PC interface, it has a tablet interface, and it still has a 10" screen. It's unlikely most people are still interested in 10" netbook-style PCs in 2015. If you're going to use something as a PC, a 10" screen is too small for real productivity work.
The Pixel C may fail, and it would've been better if Google waited until the new OS is ready in 2017 to launch such a device. If indeed the Pixel C fails, the fallout could cause a negative sentiment towards Android-powered notebook-style devices, and when the real Android-powered notebooks with a PC-optimized interface arrive in 2017, they'll be met with extreme skepticism. (The Pixel branding could also suffer from it, although it never made much sense to use the Chromebook branding for an Android device.)
What Android For PCs Should Look Like
We've already seen the direction Google should go with Android. Remix OS, a PC-optimized Android fork, is the best glimpse of how Android should look on PCs that we've seen so far.
Remix OS comes with a start button, a task bar, windows in which smartphone and tablet apps can be contained and resized, and even a Mac OS X-style notification bar. It also has a desktop-style file manager that can be especially useful for power users (which Google should try to win from the start because of their disproportionate influence in recommending products to their less tech-literate friends).
If Google took the Remix OS and left it as is, it would likely prove quite successful from day one, granted if there's enough promotion and at least a few big-name laptop makers behind it.
Google would need to ensure only that developers have all the right APIs needed either to make their existing Android apps look good and work well on PC-style devices or to build great PC-optimized apps from the ground up.
Android With Chrome-Style Updates
Although Google's new OS for PCs will be built on Android, it should be more like Chrome OS than Android in regard to updates. Again, Google already has a history with Android TV, Android Wear and Android Auto, which can only be updated by Google itself.
If the new Android OS gets updates as often as Chrome OS did (roughly every six weeks) and for at least as long (four years, which probably should become at least six, though) that should alleviate many people's concerns when choosing an Android notebook over a Windows one.
The new Android-based OS for PCs has a real chance to become popular, but only if Google gets its user interface right in a way that's optimized to use applications on the desktop, and if developers have all the tools they need to build those applications, at least a few months before the mainstream availability.
ARM hardware should also be more than powerful enough by 2017 for $300-$700 Android-powered notebooks, so Google will have all the right conditions to make this a reality, as long as its execution is good.
Lucian Armasu joined Tom’s Hardware in early 2014. He writes news stories on mobile, chipsets, security, privacy, and anything else that might be of interest to him from the technology world. Outside of Tom’s Hardware, he dreams of becoming an entrepreneur.