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Android and Chrome may come together, but don't expect changes yet, Google says

As Google gets set to release its newest Android devices, CNET sat down with some of the division's head team members to chat about security software, screen sizes and getting users to update their gadgets.

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David Burke, VP of engineering for Android, said he thinks most people want a "phablet" but just don't know it yet.Photo by Stephen Lam, Getty Images

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Google may be tightening the ties between its operating systems for mobile devices and PCs, but they won't be merging anytime soon, a senior member of one of Google's software teams said.

In a wide-ranging interview at Google's corporate headquarters here, Brian Rakowski, Google's vice president of product management for Android, said that the two teams in charge of the Android mobile device software and the Chrome OS software for PCs work together much more. But that won't mean sweeping changes, at least for now.

"There's no plans to change the way the products work," said Rakowski.

Android and Chrome, both headed by Google Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai, are important businesses to Google. The company's cash cow is still search and advertising -- now a $50 billion a year business -- but Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page has called Android "the future" of the company.

There's good reason for his interest in Android. It has become the most widely used operating system in the world, powering more than 80 percent of the globe's smartphones. Chrome OS, a separate piece of software developed to power lightweight PCs, has a smaller presence; it made up only 2 percent of desktop computer shipments, though it has been popular among educators. The convergence of Android and Chrome OS would represent a significant, though not unexpected, shift for Google.

Google's Android department has been busy over the past month. Earlier this month, the company unveiled the newest additions to its Nexus line of devices: the large-screened Nexus 6 smartphone and the 8.9-inch Nexus 9 tablet , both of which serve to showcase this year's updates to the Android software. The latest version, called Lollipop , has a new look called "material design" and boasts improvements to notifications in addition to better battery life.

Earlier this week, CNET sat down with Rakowski, along with VP of Engineering for Android David Burke and Group Product Manager for Android Gabe Cohen, for an interview and demo of Lollipop's abilities. Below are snippets of the conversation.

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Google has tightened the ties between Android and Chrome OS, the company's two main software platforms.Photo by Google

On Android and Chrome coming together:
Last week, CNET and others reported that Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google's vice president of engineering for Android, had expanded his role to also oversee engineering of Google's Chrome operating system.

The move was the latest indication of the two platforms coming together. In June, Google said it would make it easier for app makers on Android to bring their programs to Chrome OS, and vice versa. On Friday Google said Pichai will take on even more product responsibilities at Google, which could indicate a push toward more harmony among all of Google's software platforms.

In an interview, Google confirmed Lockheimer's role change to CNET but downplayed its implications for the two software platforms. "There's no plans to change the way the products work," said Rakowski, when asked if Android would take over Chrome.

"Some of the Chrome OS teams are moving under Hiroshi. Turns out they're solving similar problems," said Rakowski. "It make sense for them to work together."

On small-screen options:
Google is officially in the "phablet" business -- a large-screen device that serves as a hybrid phone and tablet.

Google's Nexus 6, with its 6-inch display, is the biggest phone the company has ever made. It's even bigger than Apple's 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, which was launched in September.

The popularity of large phones has had another effect as well: Neither Google nor Apple offer new devices with smaller screens.

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The Nexus 6 is the largest phone Google has ever made.Photo by Josh Miller/CNET

Burke said that people who want a small-screen Android device can still buy the Nexus 5, released last October, or choose to buy a device made by another company.

But he also said he thinks some consumers just don't know they want a phablet yet: "If you gave them a phablet for a week, 50 percent of those would say they like it and not go back," he said.

On theft-deterrent "kill switch" software:
To try to curb smartphone theft, government officials across the country have been pushing for antitheft software known as a "kill switch" to become standard on smartphones. The software is designed to deter theft by locking a phone so a thief can't wipe its memory -- making it useless and unable to be be resold.

In California, legislators passed a law that goes into effect in July 2015, mandating that all phones sold in the state include a kill switch, and that it come automatically turned on.

When Apple in September released iOS 8, the mobile operating system that powers its iPhones and iPads, it automatically turned on its kill-switch feature for the first time.

Google vowed to include a kill switch on the newest version of Android. Its software, dubbed "Factory Reset Protection," requires people to type in their Google password to reset a phone. The problem: It's not automatically turned on by default.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon applauded Google's new software but preferred that it be automatically turned on. "We will continue to encourage every actor in the smartphone industry -- including Google -- to take the necessary, additional step of ensuring this technology is opt-out on all devices," Gascon said in a statement.

Rakowski said Google doesn't know when it will automatically turn on the feature, but it will be compliant with the law by next year's deadline.

On fragmentation, and getting new software on users' devices:
Pichai has called Lollipop the "biggest, most ambitious" Android release to date. There are sweeping changes to the user interface -- an effort Google calls "material design" -- as well as improvements to notifications and battery efficiency.

But that won't mean much if Google can't get people to update their devices.

Whenever Apple criticizes Android, it often says Google's operating system is "fragmented." At an Apple product launch in October, the company's senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, said more than half of people with Android devices use Jelly Bean, a version of the software that was released in 2012.

To spur adoption, Google said it's creating ads to get people familiar with Android. The company last week began airing a television commercial about Android's brand with the tagline, "Be together. Not the same."

Some of Google's advertising will also focus on the newest version of the software, Lollipop, and its new "material" visual design, Rakowski said. "We want people who have 'material [design]' devices to make fun of their friends who don't."

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