Your Chromebook Will Soon Be Able to Run Android Apps
Android started as a smartphone operating system eight years ago and has since taken over almost everything with a screen. It is the world’s leading mobile operating system, due in no small part to a sprawling app store with more than 1.6 million titles.
Google hasn’t enjoyed quite the same success with Chrome OS. Even as Chromebooks take over education and low-end PCs, critics still call it “just a browser” that “only works with an Internet connection.” That’s a bit harsh. Chrome is a fantastic operating system—lean and simple and perfectly suited to working in the cloud. But it doesn’t feel like a fantastic operating system because multitasking in tabs is a pain in the ass, and apps are generally faster.
Everyone saw where this was headed. Today, it went there. Google announced that it is making the Android Play Store available to Chrome OS. Developers get access in June, and everyone else sees it next fall. That means your Chromebook will run any app available for Android phones. That means Chromebook is more than a browser. And that means all the people griping about Chrome OS not supporting Office, or Photoshop, or that weird app you use to track expenses can finally shut up.
Beyond the Browser
To make this work, Google engineers will build the Android N framework into Chrome OS. That ensures Android apps run quickly and easily with “no overhead and no performance penalties from emulation or virtual machines,” says product manager director Kan Liu. It also means you’ll see phone notifications on your Chromebook and share files between devices. Apps will appear on Chrome OS the same way you’d expect from a desktop app: in individual, resizable, see-a-bunch-at-once windows. (It helps that Google encourages developers to build apps for all screen sizes, so things should scale well.) You can share between apps, even between Android apps and the Chrome browser.
Logging into a new Chromebook or borrowing one from a friend will be like booting up a new Android phone: All your apps will download, and you can decide which data to store on your device. (In other news, expect Chromebook hard drives to get bigger.)
Google’s been working on this since at least last year, when it essentially uploaded a handful of apps—Evernote, Duolingo, the all-important Yo—into the Chrome Web Store. The especially enterprising could run even more; very little bars you from running Android apps in phone-sized windows on your desktop, something that works particularly well with a touchscreen Chromebook. But the Chrome Web Store is a swamp of apps, extensions, shortcuts, toolbars, and more. The Play Store is huge and familiar, and contains payment information for millions of people.
Chrome OS offers developers another reservoir of users, some of whom might actually pay for apps because they can use them on a laptop and a phone. Google can stop begging developers to create new apps to make its desktop OS feel like a desktop OS. This is awesome. Sure, simplicity is one reason to love a Chromebook. Everything’s just a browser. But Chromebook will remain “mostly a browser,” but every PC is “mostly a browser” these days. Google must ensure adding all these apps doesn’t compromise the security—another appealing Chromebook feature—but Liu says apps are contained within their own section of the OS and administrators can decide what is and isn’t allowed.
The Play Store, running on Chrome OS.
There Can Be Only Two
This isn’t The Great Merging of Chrome OS and Android. Google always been clear in saying that won’t happen, and bringing the app store to Chrome OS appears to underscore that. The Chrome OS interface is better suited to bigger screens than Android, not to mention to keyboard-and-mouse use. Introducing Android apps to Chrome OS offers the advantages of both systems. In a way, Google just created the universal, buy-once-run-everywhere app ecosystem Microsoft desperately wants to build into Windows 10.
Just a handful of newish Chromebooks from Asus, Acer, and Google will get the apps to start, but Google Play support will come to nearly every Chrome OS device eventually and Android N will be built into Chrome OS. Don’t expect many problems running apps, because most of them are designed to work on even the lamest smartphones.
This is big news for Chromebooks and makes them even more appealing. Chrome OS and Android remain two distinct things, but they share everything that matters. And will make both of them better.