Last week, the FedEx guy dropped off two boxes from Google. In one, I found the Nexus S, a terrific new phone that carries the latest version of Android, the search company’s mobile operating system. The other box contained the Cr-48, a prototype laptop that Google built to show off the Chrome OS, its upcoming cloud-computing operating system.
The timing was coincidental—Android and Chrome OS are built by different teams in different parts of Google, and each OS looks and works vastly differently from the other. Their prospects also seem divergent. While Android is a runaway success bent on dominating the mobile computing market for years to come, Chrome OS is thoroughly experimental—there are many questions about how a PC that exclusively runs Web apps will do in the market, if it ever gets to the market.
Still, as I used both machines over the last few days, I couldn’t help but notice how each OS might complement the other. It’s puzzling that Google is building two completely separate operating systems, because when you use them side by side, the truth becomes obvious: Chrome OS and Android belong together. Indeed, they’d be great together. The world needs a single operating system that works on PCs, phones, and other devices, an OS that shares the friendly user interface of Android with the constantly connected, cloud-obsessed ethos of Chrome. Call it Chromedroid.
I suspect that many at Google would disagree with me—the company has long maintained that Android and Chrome OS differ philosophically, not just technically. Of the two, Android is the more straightforward affair. It began as an effort to make an Internet-connected smartphone, and after Apple launched the iPhone, Google repurposed Android as a less-restrictive iPhone clone. At first this seemed aspirational; the G1, Google’s first Android phone, was chunky, and its software was neither sleek nor intuitive. It seemed to be an iPhone knock-off in every way.
Over the years, though, Android has improved remarkably—and as a result, it keeps winning an ever-larger share of the mobile market. The Nexus S is the first Android phone that I would consider a viable replacement for the iPhone. As a piece of hardware, it’s not as ostentatious as the iPhone 4, but it is pretty in a minimalist way (the entire phone is a slab of black plastic and glass; it looks like a prototype of a phone, which is kind of charming). The Nexus S also feels less delicate than the iPhone—its back isn’t made of glass, so you’re not flirting with disaster if you decide to forego an ugly case.
Gingerbread, the codename for the newest version of Android, is the star of the Nexus S. It brings several user-interface improvements to the OS, and offers a few brand new features, too. For example, Gingerbread can handle “near-field-communication” chips—chips that let your phone read “tags” in the real world. (You could pass your phone across a bus-stop movie poster to see show times, for instance.)
It’s true that there are still some things that the iPhone does better than Android. I like the way Apple favors on-screen buttons rather than drop-down menus, the iPhone’s text-selection and copy-and-paste system is easier to use, and Apple’s device handles music and videos better. But there are areas in which Android runs circles around the iPhone. If you already manage much of your life through Google apps—Gmail, Calendar, Google Voice, etc.—Android will integrate with that data much better than your iPhone will. I also like Android’s home-screen widgets, little interactive buttons that show you a scroll of the news, weather, e-mail, or other information. Android’s notification screen—a bar on the top of the phone that you slide down for more information—gives you quick access to important updates like missed calls, voicemails, new e-mail, and other data, and there’s nothing like it on the iPhone. And then there’s voice recognition: It’s possible to accomplish lots of things on the Nexus S without ever reaching for the keyboard; you can speak to type an e-mail, search the Web, or find a nearby dry cleaner—and most of the time, the phone will know what you’re talking about. The iPhone can’t do that.
Compared with the next-generation Nexus S, Google’s Chrome OS notebook feels as if it comes to us from an earlier time—a time before your operating system could load multiple overlapping windows at once or before people wanted to plug things like thumb drives and iPods into their machines. When you load up the Chrome OS for the first time, you sign in with your Google account and, if you want, snap a photo of yourself with the built-in camera. That’s all the setting up you need: Now you’re inside the OS, which is actually just a big Web browser window. Whatever you do on the Chrome laptop occurs in the browser: You check your e-mail in Gmail (or any other online e-mail system), you watch movies on YouTube, and you do your spreadsheets in Google Docs. Google is giving out the Cr-48 to a small group of beta testers, but don’t fret if you don’t make the cut. It’s easy to replicate the Chrome OS on your PC or Mac: Load up the Chrome browser, maximize it, and never switch to any other program. That’s exactly what it’s like to use the Chrome laptop—it’s all Web, all the time, and it’s very, very strange.
Sure, I understand the point Google is trying to make with the Chrome OS. The cloud is coming fast—we’re all doing more and more of our computing online rather than in desktop or mobile apps, and over time this trend is sure to continue. What I don’t understand is why Google thinks we need a computer that works in the cloud exclusively. The Chrome OS can’t run anything outside of a Web browser. It can’t support printers that aren’t connected to the Internet. It can’t run photo editors or music players that aren’t on the Web (i.e., it can’t run iTunes or anything like it). It can’t use third-party VPN software or PDF readers or non-Web games or alternate browsers or … pretty much anything that’s possible on any other PC. To address this shortcoming, Google has opened up the Chrome Web Store, which is filled with third-party apps for the Chrome OS. But these apps aren’t like apps on your phone or your computer. Instead, they’re just Web sites—they’ll work in Chrome or in any modern browser, and they can’t do anything that you can’t currently do in a browser.
I don’t mean to suggest that these limitations render the Chrome OS unusable; for a lot of tasks, the Web is enough, and I found that I could get through most of what I had to do each day on the Cr-48. Still, using the Chrome OS feels like sleeping in your backyard instead of your comfy bed or like riding a unicycle to prove that one wheel is all you really need. The more you use the Chrome OS, the sillier you feel. I’ve got several computers in my house that can do everything that the Chrome OS can do (in other words, they all run Chrome) and more. What’s the point of using this computer that does less? One wheel may be all you need, but aren’t two wheels usually better?
There are a couple features in Chrome OS that I think are quite innovative. It is the only operating system I know with “session continuity,” or what Engadget editor Joshua Topolsky calls the Continuous Client. Much of what you do on Chrome OS is replicated in all other instances of Chrome—when you add or change your bookmarks, passwords, autofill information, and color scheme in one Chrome machine, the changes show up everywhere else, too. There’s also instant-on capability—the Cr-48 goes into deep battery-saving sleep when you shut its lid, but it recovers nearly instantly when you open it up.
But these features are destined to be underappreciated if they’re stuck in an OS like Chrome. That’s why I’m wishing for Chromedroid, a single Google operating systems that works on all computing form factors. Chromedroid would borrow session continuity and other cloudy goodness from the Chrome OS team—everything you do on the OS would be replicated automatically to the Web, so you would never lose anything, and you’d be able to recover all your data and computing preferences on any other machine. But in its overall look and feel, Chromedroid would work more like Android than Chrome. Although it would include a Web browser, it would let you do things outside of your Web browser if you wanted to. And trust me: You will want to.
Watch Slate’s Farhad Manjoo and Harry McCracken of Technologizer discuss the future of smartphones: