Google has recently published a patent application for a slider keyboard design for smartphones, which would be designed to optimize keyboard space and layout, and even allow for the inclusion of a pointing device (mouse or trackpad, etc…).
With slider keyboards having become less popular in the touchscreen era, this patent filing seems a bit old fashioned. In part it may be an answer for the market that BlackBerry is still strong in for consumers who want or need a hardware keyboard.
What if another purpose is to bring the Chrome Operating System from Chromebooks to Android smartphones? Smartphones already have browsers, but none of them are nearly as capable of the full web experience as the Chrome OS (currently featured only on Chromebook “Notebook” PC’s). Dual-booting with Chrome is a widely anticipated feature of Android 5.0 “Jellybean”.
The Chrome OS supports a full desktop version of Adobe Flash, which Chrome for Android lacks, and which Adobe is no longer supporting for future Android versions. Chrome OS could restore this capability, which is still used by thousands of websites. iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry lack this support. Chrome OS has recently received improved touchscreen support, another possible sign of a hybrid strategy.
The latest version of the Chrome OS uses overlapping windows (the Aura Window Manager), a desktop with wallpaper background, desktop icons for web apps, and a task bar, all familiar elements of a desktop computing environment. Such a design begs the use of a pointer device, while the full browsing experience begs the use of a hardware keyboard. Google’s patent may be designed with this in mind.
HTC is rumored to be preparing hybrid Android/Chrome OS devices to bring to market as early as this year. If this includes smartphones, then a slider keyboard with a pointer device, as described in Google’s patent, would almost be necessary to make this work.
With Chrome’s ability to sync accounts between different browsers, a smartphone owner could move fluidly back and forth between the Chrome browser on a PC or a Chromebook, to Chrome on Android, to the Chrome OS on their smartphone, with the full web experience always available to them, along with all of their open tabs, apps, bookmarks, and other settings.
Is there consumer demand for a full web browsing experience on a mobile device, complete with Adobe Flash, multiple browser windows, web apps, and keyboard and pointer input? Certainly there is, if it’s done right. Are there other uses for this patent? Many, but few that make as much sense for the future of the Android and Chrome Operating Systems.
The two could even be combined in a “Webtop” environment similar to Motorola’s Ubuntu-based Webtop, which brings a full web browsing experience and a number of apps to a desktop-like environment via a “Notebook” dock. Instead of running Ubuntu, this “Chrome Webtop” might run the full Chrome OS and possibly native Android apps as well. Android app support might also be brought to the Chrome browser itself, allowing it to sync with smartphones and other Android devices.
Perhaps this is what Google intended when they spoke of “super charging” Android: moving beyond the mobile experience to a unified platform for apps and web browsing across every category of computing device, while also being compatible with Microsoft’s “Sleeper Army” of PC’s that are still a dominant force in the market even as the sales of new PC’s decline.
Winning the smartphone war may, in the end, be the single most important war to be won for the future of computing, especially with smartphone hardware increasing exponentially in power. It’s nearly possible to imagine smartphones as the central computing device. If Android can bridge the divide between these devices and other computing markets, through a variety of hybrid approaches, the potential for smartphones to become the “one device for all your needs” has never been greater.