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Chrome OS: 3 reasons Google should ditch it, and one reason it shouldn't

Commentary: Has Google's glorified Web browser-of-an-operating system worn out its welcome?

You probably know Android, Google's mobile operating system that puts the "smart" into smartphones, tablets, watches, televisions, even a few cars .

But the search giant has a second software platform, too: Chrome OS. As the name implies, it's a glorified version of the company's Chrome Web browser, designed to run cloud-based apps such as Google Docs. You'll find it in cheap laptops and mini-desktops (aka Chromebooks and Chromeboxes) designed primarily to surf the Web, and selling for as little as $150 from companies including Asus and Samsung.

Why two operating systems? Good question -- and one Google has been asking itself for at least six years. Back in 2009, Google co-founder Sergey Brin admitted that his company might eventually merge Android and Chrome OS, and we've been waiting ever since. And on Thursday, it seemed like the inevitable was finally coming to pass. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that by 2017 the two operating systems would largely become one.

If only it were so simple. The very next day, Business Insider discovered that Google may actually have three operating systems when all is said and done: Android, Chrome OS and a new hybrid that tries to blend the best of both.

From where I'm sitting, that doesn't make a lot of sense. Isn't it high time that Chrome OS got killed off? Here are three reasons I think Google should ditch the glorified browser-OS...and one reason it should stick around.

1. Cheap Windows laptops are killing the need for cheap Chromebooks

Originally, Chrome OS computers were supposed to be so inexpensive you could afford to treat them carelessly, even throw them away, yet fast enough to perform basic tasks. When the starting price of a decent Windows computer was $500, a $250 Chromebook seemed like a steal. Sure, you could find a $300 Windows computer if you looked hard enough, maybe even one at the $250 mark, but you'd be talking about an exceptionally flimsy machine with a terrible keyboard that would struggle to browse the Web.

But last year, Microsoft turned all of that on its head. The company started offering Windows for far cheaper to manufacturers building inexpensive laptops. (We're not sure exactly how much; the terms of those deals are secret.) In response, companies like HP started making decent Windows notebooks you could buy for as low as $200. That means that now, for just $50 more than the lowest cost Chromebook, you can get a "real" PC running a "real" OS -- a Windows computer that'll be compatible with all your Windows applications, instead of a Chromebook that only browses the Web and uses Web apps.

Admittedly, a Chromebook can be a remarkably nice, clean, uncluttered experience compared to your average Windows PC, which often come loaded with unnecessary software. Chromebooks also avoid some of the security risks that affect PCs.

But if you had to pick between two practically identical computers, one with Chrome OS and one with Windows for just $20 more, would that uncluttered experience be worth leaving your Windows apps behind? That's a real choice in today's laptop market:

Netbook vs. Chromebook

Lenovo IdeaPad 100S Lenovo IdeaPad 100S Chromebook
OS Windows 10 Chrome OS
Processor Intel Bay Trail (4-core 1.33GHz) Intel Bay Trail (2-core 2.16GHz)
Display 11.6-inch 1,366 x 768-pixel resolution 11.6-inch 1,366 x 768-pixel resolution
Memory 2GB 2GB
Storage 32GB 16GB
Weight 2.2 pounds (1kg) 2.6 pounds (1.2kg)
Price $200 (Best Buy exclusive) $180


And what if I told you that the Windows computers generally have just as much battery life, too? Battery life is one thing that the Chrome team finally figured out this year with machines like the Asus Chromebook Flip , which manages up to 12 hours on a charge -- but Windows machines can offer the same battery life at the same price .

2. Everything Chrome can do, Android can do better

A lot of people confuse Chrome OS with the Chrome Web browser. There's a good reason for that! While Chrome OS is technically a Linux-based operating system, it's basically the same damn browser. If you want to know what using Chrome OS is like, just fire up the Chrome Web browser on a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine, and start installing some Web apps from the Chrome Web Store.

It'll probably run a little slower than Chrome OS on the exact same hardware, but you get the idea: The experience is much the same across both types of computers.

Google's Chrome web browser running on an Android smartphone.

Nicole Cozma/CNET

You know where else you can run the Chrome Web browser? Android tablets and smartphones. Diehard tech fans will argue it doesn't support discrete Web apps -- yet -- or browser extensions -- yet -- but that's not the point. If Chrome is just a glorified Web browser, why not just add all its goodness to the things we already like about Android?

Today, there are over 1 billion Android users, people whose Android smartphones are integrated into their lives. They use those devices 24/7, thanks to an always-on internet connection and plenty of apps that work even when they're offline. Because most Android apps are designed to be downloaded to your phone, and run locally on that phone's hardware, they can have snappy, predictable performance no matter what your cell signal is like.

Yet Chromebooks, which run their apps from remote Web servers, can struggle unless they've got a constant Wi-Fi connection. Which is probably why Android has a bustling app store, filled with movies, games, and all manner of tools, while the Chrome Web Store is something of a wasteland.

But why pick? If Chrome OS were folded into Android, you'll likely be able to access any Web app you want through Android's Chrome Web browser. No need for a separate Chrome OS.

3. Going all-in on Android would help Google rally against Microsoft and Apple

Here's the biggest reason I think Google should ditch Chrome OS: Apple and Microsoft are amping up their game in a big way, and focusing on one do-it-all solution is the best way to fight back.

The Apple iPad Pro, with its keyboard folio.

CNET

On the Apple front, the Cupertino company insists that it still makes sense to have two different computer platforms. It's got the super-simple iOS for touchscreen smartphones and tablets. Then there's the more powerful OS X for desktop computing pros. But Apple's ambitions have grown wildly since it became one of the world's most powerful companies. Now, it's pushing iOS into watches, set-top boxes, and cars.

Plus, Apple has demonstrated an interest in letting people use those iOS mobile devices to get some real work done, too. The new iPad Pro , shipping this November, isn't just Apple's attempt to re-invent the stylus; it's also one of several big-screen iOS devices that now lets you do desktop-style multitasking on the fly. You can even snap in a Surface Pro -like keyboard to get more work done. Apple is strongly positioning iOS as a platform where developers can bring all sorts of apps -- not just games -- to all sorts of devices.

Meanwhile, with its new Windows 10 operating system, Microsoft has shown the promise of going all-in with a single software platform. Windows 10 on PCs, Windows 10 on Xbox One ( soon), Windows 10 on HoloLens (once it debuts) and Windows 10 on smartphones .

Yes, Windows phones only comprise a small sliver of the smartphone market, but the new Windows 10 phones coming later this year give you a full Windows desktop when you dock them to a keyboard, mouse, and a monitor. Software developers, meanwhile, can author one app and push it to all of those devices -- desktop PCs, laptops, 2-in-1 tablets, and smartphones, just for a start.

Google doesn't have many of those things going for it right now. Maintaining Chrome OS and Android independently doesn't look ambitious, it looks like a mess. Each platform has its strengths, sure, but also huge tradeoffs.

For instance, Android's never been any good at multitasking -- unless you count snapping a couple windows side by side on a Samsung Galaxy Note phablet -- but it's got a thriving app store to its name. Chrome OS doesn't have the apps, but the latest versions do a pretty great job of letting you drag around a bunch of windows and organize your thoughts like a proper desktop operating system.

If you're a user, how do you choose between those things if you want a computer larger than the one in your pocket? If you're an app developer, how do you choose which to develop for? If you're Google, where would you rather spend your money?

If Google combined Android and Chrome OS, those questions could go away for good.

But think of the students!

Okay, here's one reason why killing off Chrome OS might not be so smart: They've been a significant hit in the educational market. Futuresource Consulting reports that Chromebooks made up 49 percent of all devices shipped to K-12 schools in the United States last year, handily beating out Apple's iPad. According to a Gartner analysis, educators accounted for as many as 72 percent of all Chromebook sales in 2014.

Why? It's pretty simple: Chromebooks are basically the perfect laptops for schoolchildren. They're not only simple and cheap, but totally interchangeable, because all their data syncs with Google's servers. You can hand a kid any Chromebook, they can log into their account, and all their schoolwork will be right there. It doesn't matter if some other kid used that laptop previously. They're also fairly secure compared to older Windows laptops, since they automatically download updates, and there aren't any malicious apps that students can download to the system.

Merging Chrome OS and Android wouldn't necessarily add up to a better computer for schools. The additional complexity might actually make things worse.

The 2011 Motorola Atrix became a notebook -- of sorts -- when plugged into this "Lapdock."

Motorola


Several years back, the Motorola Atrix showed us what it was like to have a Google phone that could turn into a Google laptop. It launched a totally separate, stripped down desktop operating system when you plugged the phone into a laptop-like dock. It was also a disjointed experience, and didn't work particularly well.

Just dropping Chrome OS on top of Android also probably wouldn't be much better. But integrating the best of Chrome OS into Android, letting us use our Android apps and notifications in a big-screen, multitasking environment, whenever we add that bigger screen -- that could make an awful lot of sense for the future of computing.

Still, that doesn't mean that there isn't a reason to keep Chrome OS healthy. If the rumors are true that Google will continue to maintain its stripped-down, glorified Web browser of an operating system for the foreseeable future, I bet it's because the company's thinking of all those elementary, middle and high school students who can't afford their own laptop.