Google already dominates the market for mobile operating systems. Soon, its dominance could extend to the desktop, as well.
At Google I/O earlier this month, Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) subsidiary announced that its Google Play app store would be coming to Chromebooks later this year. That should make ChromeOS, Google's desktop operating system, far more compelling. Chromebook demand has grown impressively in recent years, but the operating system, which is heavily restricted, remains behind the market leader, Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows. The ability to run Android apps could help Google's inexpensive laptops make gains.
The problem with ChromeOS
Compared to Windows PCs, Chromebooks have many advantages. They require almost no maintenance -- patches and updates are installed in the background, and they're impervious to traditional forms of malware. ChromeOS is a lightweight operating system that runs well on minimal hardware.
But ChromeOS is essentially just Google's Chrome browser, paired with some enhancements, like a file explorer and Wi-Fi settings. In other words, Chromebooks can't run local apps. With the growth of cloud computing, that's less of a problem in 2016 than it was in prior years, but there are still many popular pieces of software that don't have browser-based alternatives. At the same time, Chromebooks are limited when they're not connected to the Internet. Users can still access Google's apps, including Docs and Sheets, but others remain inaccessible.
That will change later this year. Google plans to bring its Android app store, Google Play, to many Chromebook models. In a blog post, Google cited Microsoft Office, Skype, and Hearthstone as some of the apps Chromebook users could look forward to. In total, Google Play boasts about 2 million different apps.
Not every ChromeOS device will be compatible. Owners of Google's own first-generation Pixel, for example, won't be able to take advantage of the feature. It's also not clear how well the apps will work in the ChromeOS environment. Most Android apps have been designed around a touchscreen interface. Some ChromeOS devices sport touch screens, but many do not. Using an Android app with a mouse and keyboard would be feasible in many instances, but not all, and is certainly less than ideal. Still, it should only add to the ChromeOS experience, and will make the platform more enticing.
Microsoft has integrated Windows and Bing
Google doesn't need to own the desktop operating space, but it would benefit the company if ChromeOS's market share increased. ChromeOS is intimately tied to Google's other services, including search, Google Drive, and its Chrome browser.
There's also an element of competition. Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows 10, integrates its search engine, Bing, directly into the task bar of Windows 10 PCs through its digital personal assistant, Cortana. Users that choose to use the task bar are prompted to search the Web with Bing when appropriate. Windows 10's browser, Microsoft Edge, also integrates Bing.
Microsoft remains far behind Google when it comes to its share of the search market, but Windows 10 is driving some success for Microsoft's search engine. During Microsoft's January earnings call, CEO Satya Nadella noted that Microsoft's share of the U.S. search market exceeded 21%, driven by Bing's integration. Almost 30% of Microsoft's search revenue in the month of December came from Windows 10 devices. Windows 10 now powers more than 300 million machines, and Microsoft hopes to hit 1 billion by 2018.
For comparison, only 2 million Chromebooks were sold last quarter. Spurred on by the ability to run Android apps, that number could rise significantly in the months ahead, but Google still has a long way to go before it catches Microsoft.