Though it controls the world's most widely-used operating system, Alphabet's (GOOGL - Get Report) Google is building a brand-new OS that can run on many types of devices. While there are a few possibilities regarding what Google is up to, it looks as if the company is making a fresh play for powering the numerous web-connected embedded devices that make up the proverbial Internet of Things.
On GitHub, a popular site for hosting open-source software projects, Google has published code written for Fuchsia, an OS in development that (unlike Android or Chrome OS) isn't based on Linux. Rather, it's based on the Magenta kernel, which is positioned as an alternative to popular embedded operating systems such as FreeRTOS but that can support both powerful and low-resource devices.
Notably, some of the developers working on Magenta have experience developing embedded devices, and one has confirmed Fuchsia will support the Raspberry Pi 3, a cheap single-board computer often used for IoT projects. At the same time, the OS is being tested on PCs and appears likely to support consumer-friendly user interfaces.
There's speculation Fuchsia is meant to be a "unified OS" for mobile devices and PCs that succeeds Android and Chrome OS. But with Android now used by more than 1.4 billion active devices, and the Google Play store supporting over 2 million Android apps, the costs of ditching Android for a non-Linux OS -- even one that provides better performance and less fragmentation -- would be massive. When it comes to mobile hardware, there's little incentive for Google to reinvent the wheel when Android is faring so well.
On PCs, the story is a little different: Chrome OS, though having made some traction in the education vertical, has just a sliver of the global PC market. Thus it's conceivable Google could try to start fresh with a new platform.
However, as is the case on mobile, app support is a huge deal in the PC market. And Google is just three months removed from announcing that Google Play, replete with all its apps and content, will be available on Chromebooks. Letting Chrome OS leverage Android's giant ecosystem is Google's best bet for significantly growing its PC presence.
As a result, IoT devices are the most logical market for something like Fuchsia. While phones, tablet and PC platforms need large app libraries to be successful, the same isn't true for an OS powering refrigerators, vending machines, thermostats, industrial robots or many of the other products that could fall under the IoT umbrella.
A smaller number of core apps and services, together with the ability of product developers to add their own as needed, is often enough. Meanwhile, though Google has created an IoT-friendly version of Android through its Brillo platform, there could still be value in creating an OS that does away with Android's legacy code and is built from scratch to be optimized for performance and resource efficiency, especially as the number of connected devices grows by the billions.
It's possible that little or nothing comes of Fuchsia: Google, unlike Apple, is quite comfortable launching experimental products and services that get discontinued after a short while.
But with the company now sharing its work with the open-source community and promising an official announcement in time, the effort seems serious for now. And it could ultimately give Google another tool for becoming a major player in an IoT software space that remains quite fragmented.