The news that Google plans to fold the Chrome OS into Android, effectively unifying its two operating systems, has set the tech world abuzz.
But the unification plans may not be quite as straightforward as they seem. In fact, Google could end up increasing its number of operating systems instead of reducing them, a person familiar with the matter told Business Insider.
“There is a scenario in which we move forward and the likelihood is there is still Chrome OS and Android and there could be a third project that combines the best of both,” the person said.
The unification efforts are still early and it’s still not clear how everything will ultimately play out, the person said.
Until now Google has maintained a clear delineation between its two operating systems, Chrome OS, based on Google’s Chrome web browser, is for the traditional laptop and PC-like family of Chromebook devices. Android is for lower-powered devices like tablets and smartphones, and increasingly gadgets like watches and TVs.
Google has long acknowledged that the two operating systems would eventually converge. Having one operating system is simpler for Google and for app developers. And with Android already the world’s dominant operating system for mobile devices, while Chrome OS remains a niche player in the laptop market, the decision to go with Android seems logical.
But the Wall Street Journal’s report that Google plans to converge the two operating systems as soon as next year drew a quick response from Hiroshi Lockheimer, the Google executive in charge of Android and Chrome who said that Chrome OS was not about to be killed anytime soon.
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!
— Hiroshi Lockheimer (@lockheimer) October 30, 2015
No doubt Google needs to reassure panicked hardware partners and others who have invested resources in Chrome OS that Google isn’t about to leave them in the lurch.
In effect, Google may be experiencing a problem familiar to many elder tech companies: trying to protect a legacy business while moving to newer, better technology. (One company that has largely avoided this is Apple, which ruthlessly cuts off legacy technology and businesses when it’s ready to move to the next thing.)
One potential route would be for Google to continue to release code for the open source versions of Chrome (Chromium) and Android (AOSP), which other companies would be free to build on, while focusing most of its attention and first-party devices on the new hybrid, which would contain more links to Google services and have more licensing restrictions. (Google already differentiates between AOSP and the Google-approved version of Android; only companies who agree to certain restrictions may use Google’s Android branding to market their phones.)
But the move could add its own new set of risks, since it basically would result in the opposite outcome of what Google intends. Instead of unifying its operating systems into one piece of software, Google would have to juggle three different systems and all the technological and public messaging complexity that comes with that.