Chrome tablet: Will Google reboot its mobile strategy?

There's no Chrome OS tablet yet, but here's what a Chrome OS tablet would mean for Google's sometimes-dysfunctional relationship with Android.

Sundar Pichai is the head of both Chrome and Android.
Image: Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

While Acer didn't announce its rumored Google Chrome-powered tablet on Tuesday, there are still signs that Google could team with a vendor to release a Chrome tablet this year. The question is whether this would be a refined approach to mobile or a prelude to the long-expected merger of Chrome and Android.

The writing has been on the wall for Google to take a second stab at mobile with Chrome OS. It all started in 2009 with Sergey Brin's now-infamous comment, "Android and Chrome will likely converge over time." In late 2012, a Google+ post by François Beaufort hinted at a Chrome tablet.

Then, in February 2013, we saw the debut of the Chromebook Pixel, which was Google's first serious attempt at giving users a quality touch experience with the web. One month later, Sundar Pichai replaced Andy Rubin as head of Android, putting him in charge of both Chrome and Android. Now that Rubin has moved on from Android, it will be far easier for Google to shut down Android if they choose to.

Google's relationship with Android has long been characterized by creative tension. Google purchased the mobile startup in late 2005 and unveiled it in 2007 as an open source platform. What began with the best intentions, eventually helped cede control back to the carriers and handset manufacturers. Android, now wrought with security issues, fragmentation woes, and forking problems has become difficult for Google to manage.

Chrome is holistically Google's vision, while the open nature of the Android ecosystem makes it more of a tense dance with the community of developers and partners.

J.P. Gownder, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, said Chrome OS provides Google an opportunity to bring some semblance of order to their mobile strategy.

"The more rationality they can bring to their own ecosystem, the more successful they'll be at driving actual revenue with the strategy. Rather than an extremely open source, tenuous connection that they have to the forked Android world where they really don't make money," Gownder said.

The initial Chrome OS mobile device, more than likely, will not launch with any Android capabilities. Instead, the decision to unify the two systems will be probably be announced separately and phased in over time. It's difficult to imagine what that will look like, but Gownder mentioned that if QNX is able to "emulate" Android applications, then Google should be able to find a way to do it with Chrome OS.

"I think it's entirely possible they may merge the two, and one will simply be a subset of modules for the other," said Carl Howe, vice president at Yankee Group.

Regardless of how they implement the change, Google needs to find a way to guarantee a consistent user experience on mobile devices; and, as long as they only have Android as an OS, that will not happen. But, never fear Android die-hards (like my TechRepublic colleague Jack Wallen), Android is unlikely to be on the chopping block anytime soon.

"The reality is that the dynamism of the Android ecosystem, and all of the developers that are dedicated to it and all the existing applications are just far too valuable to just throw to the curb. So, Chrome OS is never really going to take off without leveraging the power of that existing Android ecosystem," Gownder said.

Another view of what's happening with the Chrome platform is that Google might not have a master plan.

"I don't think Google particularly cares which wins; and I also don't think they view it as an either/or," Howe said. Adding, "I don't see it as their move to go proprietary. I think they view it as, 'This is another type of device that drives ad revenue, and that's where we make our money."

As a mobile platform, Chrome doesn't have to replace Android in terms of market share to prove itself a valuable asset to Google. Chrome puts Google in a position to make more revenue with a smaller market share, similar to the way Apple has done with iOS, where it makes nearly as much money as Android, despite having only 12% global market share.

Google will probably never abandon Android; but having a more uniform mobile platform would give Google the opportunity to provide a simpler user experience and make more money with the platform that Pichai calls "exceptionally profitable."

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