Google’s Chrome OS Extends Battle With Apple

At its event today, Google (s goog) pulled the curtain back further still on Chrome OS, which it originally announced in July 2009. Chrome OS takes many cues from Google’s success with its Android mobile operating system, so don’t be surprised if it leads to more competition for Apple’s (s aapl) platforms and products.

Chrome OS is all about web apps, and basically involves a modified version of the Chrome browser running on top of Linux. It’ll depend largely on apps from the Chrome web store, which launches today in the U.S. with a 500 app library. Demo apps look native, but are in fact built with HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript.

The timing of the Chrome web store’s launch is very close to that of another app distribution platform: the Mac App Store, which could arrive as soon as next week if recent reports prove true. Looking at screens of Google’s web app marketplace compared to Apple’s iOS App Store in iTunes, you’d be forgiven for thinking they came out of the same design studio.

But the cosmetic similarity hides a fundamental difference: Google is going all-in on web apps with Chrome OS, while Apple is more or less committed to native apps on both iOS and OS X. Once upon a time, Apple recommended web apps (near the bottom) as the way to get third-party software on the iPhone, but those days have long since passed once Apple added support for native third-party iOS titles in 2008.

As with Android, which is hardware agnostic, Chrome OS isn’t tied to any particular manufacturer the way Apple’s operating systems are. Chrome web apps can even be used on OS X using Google’s browser, so in theory there’s no barrier preventing a Chrome OS user from accessing their data on any machine that can run the Chrome browsers. Apple’s emphasis on native apps means neither data nor applications aren’t as portable and hardware-independent.

Ironically, Chrome OS runs the risk of providing much more of an inconsistent experience because it isn’t picky about hardware. Android is already tremendously fragmented, with multiple versions in active service, and different device-specific flavors being used by different manufacturers, though that has improved somewhat recently. Chrome OS seems vulnerable to the same kind of fragmentation, though maybe not to such an extreme degree since lightweight browsers often run well across many hardware configurations.

If Apple has one major advantage in the expanding battle with Google, it’s that Cupertino has the underpinnings of a unified, cross-platform approach in place. The Mac App Store and the iOS App Store are both all about native apps. OS X Lion promises to draw the ties that bind between itself and iOS even closer still. Chrome OS, on the other hand, is focused on web apps and seems to share little of the narrative behind Android and its marketplace, beyond not being picky about hardware.

Google’s not making it easy to connect the dots between Chrome OS and Android, and it doesn’t look intent on doing so in the foreseeable future. Even without a clear link between the two, Chrome OS is a new front for Apple to keep an eye on in the ongoing war between open and integrated.

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