Android now, Chrome OS later. Can Google balance its platforms?

by Kristen Nicole

Chrome OS was the focal point for the final day of Google I/O, the annual developers conference held in San Francisco this week. While Google (GOOG) managed to dazzle attendees with forward-thinking discussions of Chrome’s potential, even revealing the Chromebook PC to run Google’s web-based operating system, there seem to be more questions than answers regarding Google’s long term platform goals. On the one hand, Android’s mobile platform has been a runaway hit, incurring a great deal of developer interest. On the other hand, Chrome OS is sneaking into the netbook market, looking to enterprise settings to re-evaluate the way we access applications.

Chrome OS vs Android

One important point of distinction is the current line-up of devices, some supporting Android, others designed around Chrome OS. As the Android device market settles in, Chrome OS devices are just beginning to enter the market. As expected, Google revealed its own netbook device to run Chrome OS, giving the public and the developer community a proof-of-concept to explore. Having devices to operate Chrome OS is vital to Google’s long term development, though this initiative still holds little promise compared to Android’s existing success.

That leaves many developers wondering which aspect of Google’s platform program they should focus on, one granting immediate benefits, the other a bet on the future. But knowing Google, the search and advertising giant has it in mind to combine these two very important platforms to leverage each other. It would be a competitive lead for Google, as it would solve a long-standing issue other platform owners face; how to best deliver the cloud through mobility and optimized interfaces. An early success in this arena would further squeeze out Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT), both of which face the similar dilemma of marrying two operating systems towards the future of computing.

For the Chromebook in particular, Google’s targeting the enterprise for uptake of the new device. It seems a half-step in the right direction, extending a segue for the company to straddle the promise of tablets and the mounting demands of the enterprise. The Chromebook itself won’t top netbook sales, but it will demonstrate to workers a web-based solution for operating and managing apps. Serving as a hub for Google Apps like Docs, Calendar, Gmail, etc., the new netbook is an important piece of Google’s puzzle, as the company drives adoption of its latest platform project.