Android or Chrome? Will Google ever decide on one OS?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers some analysis regarding Google's confusing OS strategy. She also explains why some Android smartphone customers are still waiting for Jelly Bean.

Google wants to change the way people access the Internet.

And as part of that strategy, the company has been developing separate operating systems for mobile devices and personal computers. The idea is that the search and advertising giant wants to make it easier for people to connect to the Internet and eventually use Google services.

Since it was introduced in 2007, the company's Android mobile operating system has become a huge hit. It's now the most widely used smartphone operating system in the world. But its Web-based computing OS Chrome, which was introduced in 2009, hasn't hit the same level of success. Still, the company is plugging away with its development efforts in Chrome.

As the line between a mobile device and a regular computing device become blurred, so are the lines separating Google's operating systems. And many consumers are confused. In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some insight into Google's strategy. And I help a reader decide which Google platform he should consider now. I also help another reader understand why it is taking so long to get an update to the latest Android OS, called Jelly Bean.

What's up with Google's OS strategy?

Dear Maggie,
I'm hoping that you or your associates might be able to shed light on a subject for me. Where is Google going? I know that's a broad question, so let me explain.

Google introduced Android. I love this mobile OS. Since the original Droid debuted, I always buy Android powered phones. I've also been a user of Google's other products, which has made me a huge fan. When Google launched the Chrome browser, I began using this. And for years it's been my default Internet browser.

Two years ago, Google introduced the Chromebook, and I was lucky enough to get a "test" computer, which my 3-year-old son broke. But now, on Android 4.0 and higher, you can download Chrome Browser. I know Chrome Browser for PC/Mac and Chromebooks are at version 23, and Mobile Chrome is at 10 (or a lot less). But Google has stated that next year they will be synced and the same versions.

So my question is this: Why has Google only introduced Android tablets? How come there are no Chrome tablets? And which will eventually take over? Do you have any thoughts? If the Google (Asus) Nexus 7 is $199 and you can use Chrome, and all of the other Play Store features and apps, then why spend $249 ($50 more) for just a Samsung Chromebook?

I'm just confused on which product to get and how to even begin to figure out which would be "better" for me.

Thank you for your time,
Confuse-oole

Dear Confuse-oole,,
You are not alone in being confused. Google has two different strategies for operating systems. And it looks like over time, the two will collide.

On one side you have the mobile operating system Android, which has been a huge success in smartphones and is starting to gain traction in the tablet market. Android, like other traditional operating systems, relies on native apps to be developed specifically for the platform.

On the other side is Chrome OS. This platform relies on browsers to access applications built for the Web instead of apps specifically built for a computing operating system.

From the earliest days when Google first introduced Chrome OS, there has been confusion about Google's strategy as it relates to these operating systems. And according to Sergey Brin, one of Google's founders, at a company event in 2009, eventually the two operating systems will be merged into one .

But tying up Android and Chrome OS into a nice neat package won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight. As you've suggested in your question, Google is expanding the Android OS from smartphones to tablets and into some laptops. The company is also working on taking the Chrome OS, originally built for laptops, into tablets. Google confirmed in 2011 that it is working on a Chrome tablet , but so far the company hasn't introduced anything. Still, there have been rumors out of China that Google may be preparing a Chrome OS tablet. But it's hard to say if or when such a product will come to market.

My CNET colleague Stephen Shankland has written extensively about the evolution of Android and Chrome OS. I forwarded your question to him and to CNET's Google beat reporter Casey Newton to get their views on this issue.

Each of them believe that Android and Chrome OS appear to be on a collision course. But the merging of these operating systems is still at least a couple of years away. They also agree that the reason the two platforms are still so far apart is because Chrome OS is immature compared with the native-app platform of Android.

"There are no Chrome tablets because Web apps aren't as powerful as native apps," Casey said. As a result he reasons, a Web app on a tablet wouldn't be successful in today's marketplace.

Stephen concurs.

"I totally agree with Casey," he told me. "Google would like some glorious future to come about in which Web apps are the way, but the Web programming foundation isn't as mature and, because it's developed by a sluggishly moving industry consensus, Google can't advance as fast as it can move Android."

Stephen went on to explain that Google may be pushing for more of its programming technologies to be Web-based, but the reality is that Android offers more control. He said touch and multi-touch input are perfect examples of this. This is a fundamental technology for tablets and smartphones, but it still remains a work in progress for Web apps.

What this means, at least in the short-term, is that Google will continue to have a two-pronged strategy. It will develop Web apps for personal computers running its own Chrome OS, Microsoft's Windows, and Apple's iOS. And it will continue to develop Android for smartphones and tablets.

Stephen believes that the two markets are far enough apart that it would be too difficult to build a single OS that spans both ends of the spectrum. As a comparison, he points to the trouble Microsoft has had in developing Windows 8 and merging it with Windows Phone 8.

That said, the convergence is coming. But to be perfectly honest, it's hard to pick a single winner. And it's more likely that the technologies will migrate toward each other.

"For Google, I suspect the convergence will come as the Web programming foundation matures," Stephen said. "Mobile apps often use Web technology under the covers, but not for sophisticated or performance-sensitive computing tasks. As it gets better, more and more programming can be migrated to use the Web engine built into mobile devices. The Web is a powerful technological force because of its universality, but it's just not ready yet to take on iOS."

What does this mean for you and which products should you be buying now?

The answer to that question depends on what you plan to do with your device. The value proposition of a Chromebook is that it's an inexpensive laptop/netbook with an actual keyboard. The device is somewhat more limited than a regular laptop. You can only access cloud-based applications, and you must have an Internet connection to do anything. It's essentially a Web-based work station. It's terrific in environments where you are assured of a Net connection.

By contrast, Android is made for running native applications that were developed for mobile devices. And these devices are great for consuming content. If you want to download a movie you can always watch it offline.

If you plan on using the new device for work to create documents, spreadsheets or anything like that then the Chromebook is still a better choice. But if most of your activities include consuming content like watching movies, listening to music, reading electronic books, playing games or viewing pictures, then an Android tablet may be a better choice.

I hope this information was helpful. And I hope that this column spurs some good discussion among Ask Readers. I am very interested to hear what others think about Google's OS strategy.

Will my Droid Incredible 4G LTE ever get Jelly Bean?

Dear Maggie,
I have an HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE on Verizon Wireless. And I was wondering if you could tell me when it will get an update to the Jelly Bean version of Android. I feel like I've been waiting forever. What is the hold up?

Thanks,
Impatiently Waiting

Dear Impatiently Waiting,
One of the worst things about owning an Android phone is the fact that it's so hard to tell when or if your device will get the latest update of software.

There are many reasons for this. For one, some manufacturers, like HTC, which makes the Droid Incredible 4G LTE, layer on their own software. So any new Android update needs to be tested with the device makers own software. And the other hold up is usually the wireless operator, which also must do its own testing to make sure that the software works properly.

Unfortunately, Verizon is notoriously slow with any updates to the Android software. The company likes to say it's because it has such stringent testing methods. But honestly, I don't know what the hold-up is either.

What I do know is that HTC has announced the upgrades for some of its devices. The international version of the HTC One S, which is almost the same exact phone as the Droid Incredible 4G LTE, just got the Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean update last week . There is no word on when the U.S. version of the HTC One S, which is sold on T-Mobile will get the update. And there's also no word on when the Droid Incredible 4G LTE will get it.

There was a leak in early December indicating that several versions of the HTC One series devices would get the Jelly Bean update within the next couple of months. The Verizon version of the phone wasn't specifically named in the leaked document. But some sites have reported that the Droid Incredible 4G LTE is also expected to get the update "soon."

Unfortunately, all that this tells you is that you will likely have to wait longer for this update. Sorry I can't offer you more specifics. Good luck.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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