Android apps are just what Chromebooks needed

Coming this fall


Google just announced that Chrome OS finally has what many people have been clamoring for almost since its introduction five years ago: true native apps. And it has a massive number of them, too. When support for them launches later this year, there will be more and better apps than you can find in the Windows Store. They just happen to all be Android apps.

The Google Play Store, that massive repository of Android apps, is coming to Chrome OS. It will be available to developers in early June, then a month or two later it'll hit the more stable "beta" channel, and finally it will be ready for all users this fall.

Google waited until day two of its I/O developer conference to announce what might be its biggest and most impactful news. With the Play Store, Chrome OS is suddenly a lot more compelling to users who might have shied away from using a device that could only use the web and web apps. Sure, most of those new native apps were originally designed for phones, but they run quite well on the Chromebook Pixel 2 I saw them on.

Better than quite well, in fact. They were fast and felt fully integrated with the OS.

That the apps were fast shouldn't be a surprise, as the Chromebook Pixel 2 is a very powerful (and very expensive) computer. But Kan Liu, senior director of product management for Chrome OS, assures me that they will run well on virtually any Chromebook you can imagine.

At the very beginning, developers will need to have a Chromebook Pixel 2, ASUS Chromebook Flip, or Acer Chromebook R11 to test Android apps on Chrome OS. Over time, Liu says that Google will add compatibility for the vast majority of Chrome OS devices — including both Intel and ARM-based devices. The version of Android that's getting baked into Chrome OS will be the coming version, Android N (though the version I tried was using Android M).

Liu says that even on low-end Chromebooks, Android apps will run well — because most of them are designed with the wide array of Android phones in mind. Some Android phones have extremely limited processor and RAM resources, and even the cheapest Chromebooks still have more horsepower than many of the Android phones currently in use.

There are lots of reasons I was so impressed by how well everything worked. First, Android is smartly and intelligently integrated directly into Chrome. Apps show up as fully independent, separate, resizeable windows, instead of inside some weird Android zone. Their notifications appear inside Chrome OS's own notifications area. Heck, even more complex Android things like Facebook Messenger's floating "Chat Heads" show up exactly as you'd expect.

For example, I was able to edit a local photo using Photoshop Mix, save it, then insert it into a document with Microsoft Word. They were all Android apps, and it would have worked just as well if the Wi-Fi had been off. I played a relatively graphics-intensive game, Galaxy on Fire 2 HD, using the controls on the Pixel 2's touchscreen — and if developers want, they can add support for keyboard controls. I Alt-Tabbed seamlessly between Android apps and Chrome OS Chrome browser windows.

Maybe the best example of the tight integration between Android and Chrome OS that I saw is the "share intent" feature. On Android, most apps have a "share" button that pops up a list of apps you can send a link or a photo to. On Chrome OS, hitting that button on an Android App brings up a Chrome OS dialog box, where you will get your list of apps — including the Android Gmail app.

Because this is such an early release, I of course ran into a few bugs in my short time with them — most of them were due to the fact that the window management code in the build I was trying wasn't ready yet. Google will definitely need to iron out those bugs before it reaches consumers this fall. If it does, Chromebooks are going to become even more compelling than they already are, if only because the number of apps that will work when you are offline will increase by several orders of magnitude.

Google seems to have made all the right decisions with the UI, but more importantly it's also made the right decisions under the hood. Android isn't run in emulation or as a virtual machine, it's essentially fully native on the laptop. It has full access to the Wi-Fi, processor, RAM, and other components that it will need. Both Chrome and Android will be able to access the same local file system.

In fact, as far as the Google Play Store will be concerned, your Chromebook is just going to be another Android device. When it set it up, it will sync all your Android apps over just as though you were setting up a new Android phone or tablet. You can browse the full Play Store directly in Chrome and install any app. When you hit the Search button in Chrome OS to bring up the unified search box / app launcher, your Android apps and Chrome apps will appear there together, both first-class citizens on the OS.

Android on any screen size larger than 7 inches has perennially been a terrible experience — even on Google's current flagship tablet, the Pixel C, most apps appear in full screen and you can tell they're not designed for it. On Chromebooks, that issue will not be such a big deal because you can simply have them open in smaller windows. And while running phone apps on a desktop doesn't necessarily strike most people as a great solution, Android tablet apps are worse on their own merits. But in both cases, I suspect that the release may spur additional Android development. Chrome OS has a large and growing user base — way more than there are on Android tablets — and access to those users could push Android developers to update their apps to support different windows sizes.

Thinking in terms of Android tablets isn't really the main show here. For years now, Microsoft has been trying to create an ecosystem of lightweight, compelling apps available on a laptop computer from an app store. But in a few short months, Google will achieve exactly that. If Android developers take advantage of this new install base of Android users, we could begin to see "desktop class" native apps on Chrome OS.

Photography by Dan Seifert. Video by Vjeran Pavic.