Chrome OS: What does it mean for Android?

Google already has what seems to be a viable netbook operating system in Android, so why does it need Chrome OS too?
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

This week saw Google announce its first foray into the world of the desktop operating system with the Linux-based Chrome OS.

The company said it is targeting Chrome OS at netbooks. Interestingly, it is a market that Google is set to enter, thanks to its Android mobile OS: Acer is already preparing an Android netbook and analysts are predicting the OS could do well in the low end of the netbook market.

But given that Google already seems to have a viable netbook operating system, why does it need Chrome OS too?

According to analysts, it is part of a strategy that will see Google closing in on the market with a pincer movement — with Android set to compete in the low end and Chrome OS squaring up to Windows 7 at the fancier, bells-and-whistles end.

Annette Jump, research director at analyst house Gartner, reckons even with Chrome OS in the pipeline Android is still well suited to the smallest, cheapest netbooks: devices she describes as "seven-inch, even six-inch screen devices with very limited PC functionality, more orientated towards web browsing".

Jump added that netbook makers are "very willing" to look for alternatives to Windows as margins in this market are small and, with Windows 7 coming along, Microsoft is only likely to ramp up its OS fee.

"That will lead to an overall increased price point for those devices and increased share of wallet for Microsoft in those devices which is not in the interest of any PC vendors so they will be quite willing to talk to Google if they offer something for free — or for $5 versus much higher prices from Microsoft," she told silicon.com.

Needless to say, Microsoft currently has something of a stranglehold on the netbook market. While Linux initially did well in the netbook space thanks to the likes of the Asus Eee PC, it soon lost out to Windows XP — and, according to Jump, Microsoft now takes 85 to 90 percent share in mature markets.

However Laurent Lachal, senior analyst at Ovum, reckons Google's twin-pronged OS play could help revitalise Linux.

"[Google is] piggybacking on the momentum of Linux and also building that momentum so it's a nice win-win situation here," he said, adding: "In the netbook-as-a-would-be-laptop space here, Google [Chrome OS] allows/gives Linux an opportunity to bounce back."

Although having a two-pronged OS strategy might seem a lot of effort for Google when the company already has a lightweight OS out there in the form of Android, Gartner's Jump said Chrome OS is needed if the company wants to go after the "more standard PC market".

Android was specifically designed for smaller devices and screens and therefore has limited scope for different applications, hardware and device compatibility, she added.

"Even Microsoft doesn't have one OS which actually stretches across all devices," said Jump.

Nevertheless, with both OSes likely to be coming to netbooks in the near future, a degree of overlap is inevitable. It needn't be a problem, however, according to Ovum's Lachal.

"Obviously there is some overlap between the two operating systems and actually Google acknowledges this overlap and is perfectly comfortable with it. Because these are open source technologies it is up to whoever uses them to twist them and adapt them to whatever they want them to do," he said.

Asked whether Google's Chrome OS has a chance to make a serious impression in the netbook market, Gartner's Jump said it depends on pricing, how consumer-friendly the UI is and compatibility with hardware and applications.

"At the moment we haven't seen anything because the OS will be out in another 12 months' time. There is obviously a chance — I'm sure PC vendors will consider them but they need to tick those three boxes to get there," she concluded.

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