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New Android OS For PCs Could Be More Popular Than Chrome OS, If Google Does It Right (Opinion)

Remix OS 2.0

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 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.

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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.

You can follow him at @lucian_armasu. Follow us on Facebook, Google+, RSS, Twitter and YouTube.

  • sykozis
    ChromeOS is a "full blown OS" as it's based on Linux. Google didn't build ChromeOS "from the ground up".... They did exactly what was done to create SteamOS. They took an already existing OS (Ubuntu) and gimped the living <mod edit> out of it, making it essentially useless for most people.

    Windows has been the only option? Did we forget about OSX? It's been a very viable alternative to Windows since it's release. Linux has been around for quite a few years as well. Windows was never the only option. It's just the only one most people realize exists.

    Oh yeah, and since when has Windows been losing market share? Or are we ignorant enough to believe that sales = actual market share?

    For Google to stand a chance at overtaking Microsoft in the PC market, they need an OS that works for productivity. This is where ChromeOS has failed. It's also where Android has failed. Android is a perfectly capable mobile OS. The idea that it's UI was the failing point on laptops is laughable. The failing point is the lack of adequate productivity software. Most of the professional world uses Microsoft and Corel office suites. Most educational institutions use Microsoft and Corel office suites. Apple tried to change that in the early-mid 90's by giving computers to schools. As long as the professional world and educational institutions are pushing Microsoft and Corel office suites, Google is going to struggle to get any real traction in the PC market.

    Oh yeah, the requirement of ChromeOS to have an internet connection to do just about anything, was a major drawback as well.

    <Let's be watching our language in these forums>
    Reply
  • jimmysmitty
    16883356 said:
    ChromeOS is a "full blown OS" as it's based on Linux. Google didn't build ChromeOS "from the ground up".... They did exactly what was done to create SteamOS. They took an already existing OS (Ubuntu) and gimped the living <mod edit> out of it, making it essentially useless for most people.

    Windows has been the only option? Did we forget about OSX? It's been a very viable alternative to Windows since it's release. Linux has been around for quite a few years as well. Windows was never the only option. It's just the only one most people realize exists.

    Oh yeah, and since when has Windows been losing market share? Or are we ignorant enough to believe that sales = actual market share?

    For Google to stand a chance at overtaking Microsoft in the PC market, they need an OS that works for productivity. This is where ChromeOS has failed. It's also where Android has failed. Android is a perfectly capable mobile OS. The idea that it's UI was the failing point on laptops is laughable. The failing point is the lack of adequate productivity software. Most of the professional world uses Microsoft and Corel office suites. Most educational institutions use Microsoft and Corel office suites. Apple tried to change that in the early-mid 90's by giving computers to schools. As long as the professional world and educational institutions are pushing Microsoft and Corel office suites, Google is going to struggle to get any real traction in the PC market.

    Oh yeah, the requirement of ChromeOS to have an internet connection to do just about anything, was a major drawback as well.

    With your analogy then Android is also a "full blown OS" because it is also based on a Linux core. But I wouldn't pit it against Windows in terms of being full blown, it much like iOS is just a very watered down and basic OS. Chrome OS is the same.

    And he didn't forget about Mac OSX or Linux but neither are fully viable. Mac OSX is attached to proprietary hardware that is expensive and Linux still has poor driver support from most major hardware developers.

    All I can say is that Android will still hit the same wall Linux is hitting and that is hardware. I would never replace my desktop with a ARM based setup, even for basic uses. Until they get the same level of hardware support as Windows has and provide the same level of support it will never overtake Windows. Linux has these two major challenges to face and after 30 years has yet to fully overcome them. As I said driver support is not as strong in Linux and there is major OS fragmentation in Linux with very few offering the same support level as Windows and those that do are typically considered the watered down versions of Linux (i.e. Ubuntu) and not used by the major Linux fans.

    Unless Google shells out a lot of money and support to hardware vendors they will just play second or third fiddle on the desktop market.
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    16883495 said:
    Unless Google shells out a lot of money and support to hardware vendors they will just play second or third fiddle on the desktop market.
    Google is not going to need to give manufacturer any money for drivers: hardware manufacturers who want a share of the Android and ChromeOS pie already need to provide drivers.

    The vibe I get from Google going into "desktop OS" is that it will be primarily aimed at prebuilt integrated systems just like Android and ChromeOS.
    Reply
  • Turb0Yoda
    I didn't notice much gimping in SteamOS besides the removal or most tools and stock games that could easily be redownloaded...
    Reply
  • targetdrone
    Given how horrible the OS update process is for Android tablets and smartphones I cringe at the thought of having to buy a new PC every year to get the latest OS and security updates because either the manufacture won't release a new firmware for a given model or because the ISP won't make a new firmware for their version of that device.

    I could upgrade my 3 year old computer to Win10 if I wanted to. I can't upgrade my 3 year old smartphone to Lollipop.
    Reply
  • Robert_58
    >seamless desktop/mobile hybrid operating system

    The cringe is so hard on this one - the stupid almost makes my blood boil. Google really is the new Microsoft, aren't they? Unfortunately, they can't seem to take a hint from the abomination that was Windows 8. I DO NOT need or want tablet features tailored for content consumption, on my production rig. All tablet features do is dumb down both devices to the tablet level.
    Reply
  • MU_Engineer

    And he didn't forget about Mac OSX or Linux but neither are fully viable. Mac OSX is attached to proprietary hardware that is expensive and Linux still has poor driver support from most major hardware developers.

    All I can say is that Android will still hit the same wall Linux is hitting and that is hardware. I would never replace my desktop with a ARM based setup, even for basic uses. Until they get the same level of hardware support as Windows has and provide the same level of support it will never overtake Windows. Linux has these two major challenges to face and after 30 years has yet to fully overcome them. As I said driver support is not as strong in Linux and there is major OS fragmentation in Linux with very few offering the same support level as Windows and those that do are typically considered the watered down versions of Linux (i.e. Ubuntu) and not used by the major Linux fans.

    Unless Google shells out a lot of money and support to hardware vendors they will just play second or third fiddle on the desktop market.

    The major issue with Linux on PCs is that everybody expects a PC to run applications written for a Microsoft OS, because this is what they have done for the last 30 years. If it doesn't do so, that's fine, but then it isn't a PC, even if it really is. Slap MacOS on that same hardware and it isn't a PC, it's a Macintosh. Tablets and smartphones are essentially PCs, but it's fine as they are smartphones and tablets and not PCs. A PC that is not a PC is not a PC.

    BTW, Linux driver support is actually much better than Windows driver support. I know, I've run it for well over a decade. Windows relies on the device manufacturers to provide nearly all drivers the OS uses. This means new Windows OSes typically have poor support for hardware on initial release. Hardware more than a few years older than the OS is also rarely supported as the manufacturer isn't going to go through the time and effort to make a new driver for an EOLed piece of equipment. You get drivers for currently sold HW, maybe the previous generation, and that's about it. Linux on the other hand has its drivers developed mainly by the kernel developers, and they DO get updated to keep running with newer kernels. The OS thus supports more and more hardware as time goes on without losing support for older hardware. The one thing that Linux tends to lack with driver support that Windows generally has is support for brand-new-generation hardware on launch day. It takes a little time for the kernel developers to develop (often, reverse-engineer) a driver for a brand-new piece of hardware. But once it's been done, it's available forever for future kernels unlike with Windows.

    And another BTW, Ubuntu is actually one of the most popular Linux distributions. It's not "watered down." Once you really know Linux, it's all the same under the hood regardless if it's Debian-based like Ubuntu, Red Hat-based like CentOS or SUSE, or something else like Arch or Gentoo.
    Reply
  • Turb0Yoda
    Agreed. Linux Mint and Ubuntu, arguably the most popular distros of Linux, are both based off of Debian, with the main difference being the GUI used Unity vs Cinnamon vs GNOME(If I did not get those mixed up) Even Kali Linux, the successor to backtrack, is based off of Debian. I digress though.

    Although, I have to partially disagree with the MacOS statement. They use proprietary BiOS, and Hackintoshes aren't "true" Mac OS. It's a heavily modified version that retains the same skin. Granted, 99% won't notice the difference...


    That said, as far as my experience has gone with updates on android, I find them a hell of a lot easier than say, Windows 7 to Windows 10. Granted, older devices are closed out, but if you know how to do ROMs, the possibilities are endless.

    I make a huge digression now.
    Reply
  • Darkk
    I've been using Linux Mint for close to three years now and love it. The initial install of 17 64bit with few bumps along the way such as ATI video drivers. Had to use the ATI's proprietary drivers which is fine to make the most use of the video card. Later when 17.1 came out all those weird video problems I was having went away. Videos now play smoothly and just works.

    I didn't give up as I know it takes time to work out the kinks in any piece of hardware. I too agree driver support for Linux has gotten alot better over the years. Even cutting edge hardware. The rewards I benefit now no more dealing with Microsoft's nonsense of their software and licensing model. Linux Mint 17.1 Cinnamon is my personal choice now.
    Reply
  • MyUniqueUsername
    ChomeOS is actually growing much faster than Android. YoY for ChromeOS is over 35% and Android is closer to 10%.

    You also have to consider that ChromeOS is going against the trend and growing while Windows is declining and Mac is flat.

    Reply