Over the weekend, Ars Technica reported that there are some solid signs that the Google Play app store could be coming to Google Chrome OS devices, including the lightweight Chromebook laptops.
It’s the latest in a long string of reports showing that Google is looking to merge its two operating systems — the wildly popular Android and more niche Chrome OS — into one super-product that takes the best from both and that can comfortably live on phones, tablets, and laptops alike.
That shift comes amid a larger industry move in the same direction. With a unified operating system, developers can build an app once and sell it across multiple platforms with minimal changes to the code, broadening their customer base. That’s desirable for the tech titans of the world, as a well-stocked app store can make or break a product.
“The fundamental truth for developers is they will build if there are users,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in 2015.
Microsoft long had separate operating systems for PCs, phones, tablets, and video game consoles, but the company is now consolidating around the new Windows 10 operating system. If you buy a new Dell PC, an Xbox One video game console, a Surface tablet, a Lumia phone, or the HoloLens holographic goggles, you’re getting a Windows 10 device.
Even underdogs like Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux, a free operating system that’s popular among software developers, have gone a similar path. Whether you’re using Ubuntu to power your laptop, supercomputing cloud infrastructure, or a robotic spider, it’s all the same Ubuntu under the hood.
Indeed, it’s looking like the idea of a custom operating system for each individual device is kind of passe.
An Apple away
But there’s one huge holdout: Apple, the most valuable company in the world, has no fewer than four distinct operating systems across devices. Macs get OS X, iPhones and iPads get iOS, the Apple Watch gets WatchOS, and the Apple TV gets tvOS.
In fact, it sometimes feels like Apple is actively running away from the trend. Last week, Apple announced that it was actually making life more difficult for cross-platform developers by requiring that Apple Watch developers put in the extra work to make their apps run natively on the watch itself.
It’s hard to blame Apple for being gunshy about this trend. Microsoft’s unified Windows strategy looks great on paper, but has been struggling to make a big dent in the hearts and minds of developers and users alike. Canonical is currently unprofitable across the business. And Google is only now starting to cautiously dip its toes in this water.
Still, the App Store is a big part of the appeal of the iPhone, and it’s in Apple’s best interests to keep it strong. So it seems a little weird that Apple wouldn’t be actively investing in simplifying matters for the people who are actually building the software that makes the iPhone machine hum.
There are some extremely early signs that Apple is starting to work on this problem. The iPad Pro, Apple’s latest tablet, is pitched as a laptop replacement with an optional keyboard accessory.
Meanwhile, rumours have swirled for years now that Apple will move the MacBook to an ARM-based processor chip, similar to the one used by the iPhone. That ARM processor would make it much easier to build the framework for iPhone apps to run on a Mac, and vice versa.
And so it’s possible, though very far from certain, that Apple could be working on a kind of converged operating system — similar to Microsoft’s Windows 10 strategy, with one operating system across Mac, iPhone, and hybrid-style computers like the iPad Pro.
Then again, Apple’s current approach is clearly working, given the company’s massive success. If the strategy ain’t broke, Apple may not see a reason to fix it.