One OS to rule them all: Why Google will merge Android and Chrome OS

A new report says Google is combining its Chrome OS computer operating system and Android mobile operating system into a single platform. The combined Google OS would run on phones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
A report says that Google is combining Chrome OS and Android into a single operating system that will run across devices. Here, Google's logo is seen on the company campus in Mountain View, California.

Android, Google’s operating system for mobile phones and tablets, and Chrome OS, its operating system for laptop computers, will soon be merged into one piece of software, according to The Wall Street Journal. Two people familiar with the matter told the Journal that Google engineers have been working on combining the operating systems since 2013, and that the company might show off an early version of the new OS next year.

Android is far and away the most popular mobile operating system, and in fact, it’s the dominant OS of any kind worldwide. Research firm Gartner reported in January that 1.1 billion Android devices were shipped in 2014 – almost as many as iOS phones and tablets, Mac and Windows computers, and all other devices combined.

By contrast, Chrome OS accounted for about five percent of laptop sales in 2014, and while top-shelf Chrome OS computers such as the Chromebook Pixel exist, most of those sales were sub-$300 models.

Google’s approach to combining the operating systems is essentially to fold Chrome OS in to Android. But that’s no small task.

Android needs to be modified so that it can run smoothly on laptop and desktop computers, which means supporting keyboard and mouse input, allowing for much larger displays, and letting the system take advantage of high-end graphics cards. Apps sold through the Google Play Store would also need to be able to run on computers.

In the long term, however, combining Android and Chrome OS into a single operating system will make things simpler for Google, because the company won’t have to support and develop two different software platforms. It should also make things easier for users, since they’ll be able to use a single operating system across phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops. That’s the route Microsoft started down with Windows 8 and continued in Windows 10, which employs “universal apps” that run on tiny phone screens and brawny desktop PCs alike. 

Anonymous Google spokespeople told the Journal and tech site The Verge that Chrome OS isn’t being “killed,” and that the company will continue to manufacture laptops, though those machines will probably have a different name once the software merge happens.

On Friday, Hiroshi Lockheimer, senior VP of Android and Chrome OS at Google’s parent company Alphabet tweeted, “There’s a ton of momentum for Chromebooks and we are very committed to Chrome OS. I just bought two for my kids for schoolwork!”

That means that Chrome OS features probably won’t disappear entirely as the software is folded in to Android – instead, Google will try to combine the strengths of both operating systems to create something that’s reasonably pleasant to use no matter what size screen you’re on.

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