The two keynotes at the Google I/O developers' conference presented two divergent approaches to Google's future products - and users inevitably must choose between them. Wednesday's keynote emphasized native Android apps downloaded from Google Play. Thursday's focused on Google's browser, Chrome, with its own store for Web apps. Will the company's two-prong strategy pull it apart?
Android and Chrome are Neck-and-Neck
Google shared the latest usage numbers for Android on Wednesday. There are more than 400 million active Android devices, and the Google Play app store has over 600,000 apps available, racking up 20 billion downloads. That's a major platform, especially considering that there are multiple app stores for Android, including one offered by Amazon. That means the customer base is even bigger than the one for Google Play.
Thursday's keynote revealed the numbers for Chrome. There are 310 million active Chrome users, making it the most popular browser in the world, said Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president in charge of Chrome. The Chrome Web Store offers Web applications that will sync Chrome on all devices, and Google announced that Web Store apps will support in-app purchases, of which Google will take a 5% cut. That's tempting for developers, and it's convenient for users, since Chrome is available across platforms (albeit hobbled on iOS).
Each Platform Has Drawbacks
Considering that many people use or have gone through multiple Android devices, the 400 million activated Android devices and 310 million Chrome users represent roughly equivalent opportunities for developers. Where should they focus their efforts?
The answer is unclear. Google pushed Google Play hard at the conference, announcing the availability of magazines, movies and TV shows, revealing the Nexus Q social entertainment system, and generally doing all it could to make Android more enticing. Play is key to Google's mobile strategy because it's where Android users get the apps and media that make their devices enjoyable. But app sales through Google Play are not yet a strong source of income.
Google also announced exciting new Android hardware on Wednesday. The Nexus 7 tablet is the first Android device to come with Chrome instead of the old Android browser. But almost all of Thursday's Chrome app demos ran on Apple devices. That's a confusing signal about confidence in Android. Even if users love their new Nexus 7 tablets, they won't love those devices for long if developers don't make great software to run on them.
And as for Chrome, the pitch on Thursday was exciting and optimistic. Chrome is the most popular browser in the world, and Google is determined to get it running on all kinds of devices, no matter what Apple says.
But Chrome apps have competition for users' attention on most devices, namely, anything other than the browser. So Google continues to push forward with ChromeOS devices, announcing that every I/O attendee would receive a free desktop Chromebox. Only there will Chrome apps be first-class citizens.
So how's ChromeOS going? As Frederic Lardinois reported, it currently accounts for less than .02% of Web traffic. But there are new ChromeOS computers on the market now, and more are coming soon in "a number of different form factors." Google put its weight behind a new Android device at I/O, but soon it will tempt consumers with new Chrome devices, too, and those don't run Android apps.
What Happens Next
One of three things must happen: Consumers will embrace Android; they will prefer Chrome; or Google's user base will split in two, making everything more difficult for the company and developers. When the users make their choice, developers will have to follow them. Where does that leave Google? It will either go with the choices of their users and developers or swim against the tide at its peril.
In playing both sides of the technology, Google is doing the opposite of what Apple would do. Apple decides what's right for its users, and the users and developers just have to deal with it. But Google has always been a data-driven company. By supporting disparate platforms, Google will learn which one works better and then focus its efforts on that one. If Android takes over the world, Google can push native apps. If it doesn't, at least Android devices run Chrome, and Google can still profit from the the cross-platform browser business.
It's a rather expensive strategy, and it's confusing for users and developers. In end, though, the best technology will rise to the top.