The battle between Android and Chrome is over -- and Chrome won

Sundar Pichai, who runs Chrome, Android, and Google's apps business. Credit: Matt Rosoff

A few months ago, Google put the head of its Chrome business, Sundar Pichai, in charge of Android as well. At the time, there was speculation that Android would become more Chrome-like, perhaps even running Chrome apps directly. Eventually, the thinking went, the company would combine them into a single platform.

But Ben Thompson at Stratechery has another interesting theory: Google's long bet is on Chrome. Android was a hedge, and it's becoming a lot less important to the company, particularly for phones. From here on in, most of Google's platform innovation will happen on Chrome, not Android.

The most recent bit of evidence for this came at yesterday's Google event in San Francisco, where the company introduced the new Nexus 7 tablet and the Chromecast, a $35 device for streaming Internet video to a TV set with a mobile device or PC as the controller. Google also announced Android 4.3, the latest update to Jelly Bean, but most of the devices featured were tablets, not phones, and the most interesting new features -- like restricted user profiles and support for the latest version of the Open Graphics Library for 3D gaming -- make a lot more sense on tablets .

To Thompson's points, I'd add that the fact that it's called the Chromecast, rather than (say) the Android TV Slinger, is a strong indication of the platform direction Google's taking. 

Android is perfectly capable of running in low-powered, wireless-connected, embedded devices -- in fact, a couple years ago at Google I/O, the company unveiled a whole initiative designed to push Android into embedded devices and home automation. But when it was time to create this type of device itself, Google based it on a simplified version of Chrome instead. Chrome is an embedded operating system, but it's also a browser that runs on almost every platform. Cross-platform wins. 

Horizontal, not vertical

Thompson reasons that Google is now clearly focused on horizontal markets. Like Microsoft before it, Google wants its products to reach as many users as possible, and does not particularly care about providing an integrated end-to-end experience. (Microsoft wanted to sell operating systems and applications software; Google wants to sell advertising against services that are free to end-users.) It's the opposite approach from Apple, which wants to sell hardware with integrated software and services.

If so, Chrome is the obvious choice here to take Google forward. It's cross-platform, which means it reaches the largest number of people. It's entirely web-based, which matches Google's business goal of keeping users on the web for as long as possible, where Google can collect data about them and target ads to them.

As I've written before, Android was a hedge against Microsoft's ambitions in the smartphone space (remember, Google bought it in 2005), then was revamped quickly to respond to the sudden success of the iPhone. The goal was to make sure Apple -- or whichever other smartphone provider became popular -- could not lock Google services out of the next big platform shift to mobile devices. That mission has been accomplished on smartphones. Android has 70%+ market share. Samsung and other partners are filling in gaps like enterprise security.  

The $12 billion elephant in the room

There's only one problem with this theory. A little less than two years ago, Google made a huge play for the mobile phone space by plunking down $12 billion to buy Motorola Mobility. It since spun off the non-phone part of that business (which makes set-top boxes) and is gearing up a big ad campaign for the first Motorola phone completely designed under Google's purview, the Moto X.

If Google isn't interested in phones, why did it buy Motorola?

Thompson speculates it was a combination of empire-building by former Android chief Andy Rubin, panic over patents as Apple and Microsoft prepared to turn their huge patent arsenals against Android resellers, and a bit of Steve Jobs longing from Google boss Larry Page.

Maybe. Around that time, I also heard speculation from people close to the company that Google wanted a way to bring hardware advances that it discovered or acquired to market. The company had recently put Sergey Brin in charge of special projects, including consumer electronics gear, at Google X. So what would happen if Google X created a quantum-leap advance in something like battery life? Or digital camera processing? Motorola would give the company a way to bring this technology to market fairly quickly, without having to outsource the hardware design to a partner who could then learn from and mimic Google's technology. 

It's an affordable expense for Google, especially when you factor in the value of patents. And who knows -- Google may yet become a tier-one smartphone manufacturer, which would give it even more leverage to push its services into mobile and crack the mobile ad market.

Read Thompson's post here.

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