Android and Chrome get closer but roadmap is murky

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Ever since Sundar Pichai, who used to run the Chrome team at Google, took over responsibility for Android as well, people have been watching for ways that Chrome and Android might merge in some way. Today we saw the first hints of how the two platforms might overlap functionally. But the moves are a bit confounding given recent rumors about how the two platforms might interconnect.

From the stage of Google I/O, Pichai showed off some neat new ways that an Android phone and Chromebook can interact. Without saying when the features might become available, he demonstrated a security feature that lets a user automatically unlock a Chromebook when approaching it with phone in hand. That proximity also signs the user into apps and services.

Once the Chromebook is running, it can display a small pop up in the lower right corner of the screen notifying the user of a phone call coming into the Android phone. A similar notification displays an incoming text message and shows when the phone is running low on battery.

Pichai also showed off a few Android apps running on a Chromebook.  

"This is a difficult challenge technically, so we've been working on this project for a while," he said. "Our goal is to bring Android apps in a thoughtful manner to Chromebooks."

The idea is to let developers do minimal work to let users run Android apps on their Chromebooks. Most apps will need a modified UI to let people control them with a mouse and keyboard.

He said that it's early days for this capability and called the demonstration a preview. He showed Evernote, Vine, and Flipboard Android apps running on a Chromebook.

In some cases, it's hard to see the value. For instance, why not just run Evernote in the browser? But there are plenty of apps that don't run (think Snapchat) or don't run as well (think Instagram) in a browser, and some that simply aren't available for the browser at all. 

These new capabilities hint at the kind of value users can get from a closer connection between a phone and laptop. The features make it easier for users to move between a phone and laptop.

But bringing Android apps to Chromebook isn't exactly what Android fans have been expecting. A rumor from a couple months ago suggested that we might see more HTML5 functionality coming to Android, possibly to be announced at Google I/O. The thinking was that Google would be adding Chrome-like functions to Android, enabling more Web functions within Android apps.

It's hard to see exactly what Google is planning if indeed it starts bringing functionality from each platform to the other. The rumor about bringing more HTML5 functionality to Android could be just a rumor, meaning that we might see more pieces of Android moving to Chromebooks rather than the other way around.

One thing does seem clear from this morning's presentation: Google is indeed making moves to join Chrome and Android.

Google competitors should take notice. The types of scenarios that Pichai showed off will be a challenge for Apple and Microsoft too, as they also both have different operating systems for phones and laptops. There's good reason for running different OSes on those devices. But actually doing it makes it complicated if you want to try to get the devices to work together.

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