Some readers recently challenged my assertion that Google needs to provide a real run-time version of Chrome OS that can be installed on hardware or in a VM.
Since May, Google apparently has provided, as a developer preview, form factor simulation of Chrome OS display devices in Android Studio — similarly to how the company has provided for different Android smartphone and tablet device form factors in the past.
Also: Chrome OS grows from underdog to attack dog
It has been pointed out that Google’s solution for developers is essentially no different than how Apple does things with iOS and the Mac — so why complain? However, I disagree with the premise that a simple display mode simulation is sufficient for Android application development and testing in Chrome OS.
But this debate got me thinking about how Google and its boosters consider the search giant to be occupying a privileged position in the mobile industry when, really, it is not. Google is displaying a very different type of arrogance than what Apple and its supporters have.
Google seems to be behaving like Apple
Apple is an established leader in the space, with 12 years on iOS with iPhone and eight years with iPad. iOS has massive app revenues and an extremely committed and loyal user base. Apple’s success entitles it to a certain degree of arrogance.
But this arrogance may one day prove to be the platform’s undoing: iOS is getting stale, and it had some recent qualitative issues to deal with in iOS 12. For now, Apple is fine, because it has hundreds of billions of dollars in its coffers, and continues to make huge loads of money as a hardware vendor, a mobile application reseller, and content services vendor. So the incentive to change isn’t there. For now.
Google, on the other hand, seems to be behaving lately like Apple even though it has not earned such bragging rights. Yes, Android itself is a very proliferous platform in terms of open source community buy-in and vendor adoption. Plus, it’s great for getting users on Google’s (predominantly free and ad-supported) services, but it doesn’t engender the loyalty iOS does and it is a fractured mess of apps using many different API levels.
Also: Google, Microsoft, Apple: Where does the money come from?
The third-party developer app revenue on Android is nowhere near iOS, because Android users just plain do not do in-app purchases the way iOS users do. So, that is problematic.
Android is a disaster as a tablet platform
Unlike Google itself, very few developers have adopted Material Design to create universal apps that function well on different Android form factors — as Microsoft has with its large stable of Android apps.
In fact, Microsoft has bought into the idea of Material Design so much that it built a similar design language for Windows 10 applications: Fluent Design.
But Microsoft is a bit of an enigma in the Android space when it comes to buying into modern app design.
The majority of Android phone apps on tablets are stale and look dated; on Chrome OS, which is a windowing desktop operating system, they look even staler.
Android lacks consistent polish in the UX, and the Play Store is not as heavily curated in the way Apple does by periodically forcing developers in the App Store to adapt to new APIs and OS releases or the apps get kicked out.
Most importantly, there’s still massive fragmentation in Android OEMs keeping their base operating systems updated and patched — the “Toxic Hellstew” my ZDNet colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is so famous for coining.
Despite these issues, as a smartphone platform, Android is doing very well. But as a tablet platform, Android has been a disaster if we compare it to iPad or even Surface. So, now, Google is going to try to leverage a bit of limited success with Chromebooks in educational verticals by attempting to make it into its tablet/convertible platform to compete with iPad and Surface/Surface-ish stuff.
Also: 10 apps that make Chromebooks feel like a real desktop TechRepublic
Google needs to rally the developer troops
News flash: Unless Google can rally the developer troops to clean out their crufty code from the Play Store and wholesale adopt Material Design, it will fail to make Pixel Slate and Chromebook a real tablet and desktop application platform.
It’s not unlike the “Better Android than Android” experience that Blackberry attempted and failed to do with its ill-fated QNX-based PlayBook (which I liked a lot) back in 2011, with Android apps running on it, in a half-baked way.
Or as a much earlier example, how IBM made Windows 3.1 apps run on OS/2 in the 1990s because it could not secure native application adoption on that platform. I liked that platform a lot, too.
On paper, it sounds like a good idea to leverage Android as a development environment for Chrome OS. But Google hasn’t done the needful in making the apps run well as tablet or windowed apps in a number of respects, not just the Material Design optimizations.
Every time this approach has been attempted instead of promoting native application development on a newer system it has been a disaster. This was first described as the “Second System Effect,” by author Fred Brooks in his work The Mythical Man-Month in 1975, in which he notes that small, elegant and successful systems tend to be succeeded by over-engineered and bloated systems due to inflated expectations and overconfidence.
Does all this sound familiar?
Indeed, it could be argued that Microsoft as well has not fully been able to pull this off either, and it has had its share of dealing with Second System effects, such as with Vista succeeding Windows XP.
I would argue that Microsoft has learned from that because Windows 7 was very successful. Windows 8 and 8.1 were absolutely Second System disasters, but a lot of the technology was later leveraged to become Windows 10, which is probably the best version of Windows ever released.
Still, Microsoft has had its ongoing challenges in kicking the can. With Windows 10 it has been experiencing a reverse Second System Effect, with new modern APIs and PWA stuff — that are arguably more elegant programmatic models — which are not anywhere near as successful as the legacy Win32 apps which have been running on Windows for decades now.
Developer uptake on those new Windows APIs hasn’t been as fast as the company wants. The failure of Windows Phone/Windows 10 Mobile is a very painful example of that. But that is a different problem.
Also: Microsoft needs to refocus on Windows 10 fundamentals, not just new features
The Osborne Effect
With more details of Fuchsia OS and the Zircon microkernel as future platforms for Google coming out of the woodwork at security conferences, and Google already promoting Flutter APIs as a future development target, it’s going to be difficult to motivate developers to fix their legacy Android apps to run well on Chrome OS, especially when they know they are going to have to re-code everything in the next two or three years, unless Google makes it very easy to make that transition.
There’s another phenomenon that describes the premature discussion of a successor platform: The Osborne Effect. And that’s exactly what all this Fuchsia and Flutter talk is going to precipitate if Google is not careful in the way it handles its developer ecosystem.
(How about Fluffernutter? Is that an appropriate new term for Google vaporware?)
What does Google need to do in order to make Chrome OS a successful developer platform and improve user adoption as a desktop and tablet operating system? Talk Back and Let Me Know.
Why Google needs to put Chrome OS in developer hands
Google wants to disrupt with its stateless, cloud-focused desktop operating system. But it needs to become much more viral with exploitative apps if it expects it to succeed beyond just being a niche platform for education and light computing tasks.
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