Google CEO Sundar Pichai was handed the reins of Android in early 2013, putting him in charge of both Chrome and the company's mobile OS. Ever since then, rumors have swirled that Google would look to merge its two distinct operating systems into a unified whole. Those picked up steam this past fall, and indeed Google is finally unveiling some closer ties between Chrome OS and Android. But that doesn't mean Chrome OS is going away. Quite the opposite, in fact: This year, Google's browser-based operating system will become compatible with the million-plus Android apps available in the Google Play Store. The company accidentally revealed its plans yesterday, but a session this morning at Google I/O makes it official.
When the update rolls out later this year, Google will simultaneously tackle two of the biggest problems facing Chrome OS. "A lot of users wanted more apps and better offline capabilities," says Google's Kan Liu, a senior product director for Chrome. "We've been thinking about what is the right way to bring that to end users -- and it turns out we have a great app ecosystem in the Play Store." These apps will enable much more robust offline capabilities, something that could significantly transform how people work with Chromebooks.
"We've spent a lot of time and made good progress at enabling offline for Chromebooks based on the web," Liu explains, "but the web wasn't fundamentally designed for offline." Even though our smartphones are online most of the time, the vast majority of apps are designed to work offline as well, in a way that web apps just can't replicate. "When you design for Android, you have to think about offline," Liu adds. Things like music, video, photos, games and documents all benefit from more-robust offline modes. Some worked offline before but not to the extent they will when the Play Store arrives. "We've been trying to get developers to prioritize it [for Chrome] because users are asking for it, but developers weren't thinking about it," Liu says.
Google is doing as much as it can to make these feel like native desktop applications. It's not quite there yet, but eventually you'll be able to grab an Android app from the corner and stretch and resize it any way you like, with the content adjusting to fit that space. At the moment, though, you can only run them in their portrait phone or larger landscape tablet modes. Still, most of what I saw felt perfectly native: Notifications are filtered into the standard Chrome notification area, and the common design language across Google means most Android apps fit right in.
The obvious question is, why bother running Android apps on Chrome when you can just run them on native Android devices? Well, traditional notebooks still have a lot of productivity advantages over tablets. "The big difference between a tablet and a Chromebook is the trackpad, doing things with precision, it's a lot easier to use a mouse editing a document," Liu says. "And because it's a Chromebook, we have a full desktop-class browser." Split-screen multitasking in Android N will certainly help, but the multitasking experience still falls short of what a laptop can offer. Combined with the stability of Chrome itself, that will continue to give Chromebooks an advantage over tablets when it comes to sheer productivity.
As with most things Google, it'll be a while yet before users get to enjoy the benefits of the Play Store on their Chromebooks. Google is announcing the initiative today so it can start getting developers to take its desktop OS into account when updating their apps. It'll be available in the next developer-channel release and will only work on a limited set of devices: last year's Chromebook Pixel, the ASUS Chromebook Flip and a few others. A touchscreen will be a requirement at first, but that restriction will be lifted by the time the Play Store rolls out. That should happen before the end of the year.
If you're a Chrome OS fan, it's hard not to be excited about what Google is doing here, but it's also worth remembering that the success of Google Play on Chrome will depend on developers. The big knock against Android tablets has been less about hardware and more about the quality of apps. Developers haven't focused on building apps for larger screens with the same gusto that iOS developers have: Android tablets have always felt like an afterthought.
For that not to happen with Chrome OS, devs will need to think about building for the form factor. History says that won't happen at the level you'd hope for. Still, my fingers are crossed that things will go differently this time. The growing number of Chromebook users means there's a big, new market for Play apps. Hopefully developers will embrace the form factor. More users are always a good thing, and more apps are definitely good for Chromebook fans.
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