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Chrome OS tablets with Android apps are coming soon

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Look out, Surface

The Samsung Chromebook Plus is the first step

Get ready for Chrome OS to get a lot more pervasive and a lot more interesting this year, if only because it’s going to show up in new kinds of hardware. Google has been talking up the latest round of Chromebooks — the Samsung Chromebook Pro from CES and today’s new education-focused Chromebooks — but it’s also looking ahead to the next thing: tablets.

Google’s Rajen Sheth, director of product for Android and Chrome for education and enterprise, held a conference call yesterday to talk about Chromebooks for the education market. But he also couldn’t help but note that these 2-in-1 form factors are just the start for Chrome OS.

The Chromebook is going from being just a laptop to something that is a lot more versatile and dynamic ... such that OEMs can produce many great devices.

We have put a lot of investment into the touch UI and making touch a great experience on the Chromebook. You're going to continue to see that happen. And what that's going to do is it's going to open up the possibilities for OEMs to have an even wider variety of form factors.

You may expect everything from detachables to tablets based on Chrome OS down the line.

If that hint doesn’t convince you, here’s more evidence: Google is definitely working on a more touch-friendly interface for Chrome OS. If you look closely at the image of the Chromebook Pro above (which is decidedly not a tablet), you may notice that the icons on the task bar are bigger than they used to be.

You may also have noticed that Google has indicated that all new Chromebooks going forward will have support for Android apps and that many will also come with styluses. Android apps absolutely make more sense in a tablet world than on a touchable laptop screen. And later this year, a new version of Chrome OS will support Android N, which allows apps to be resized like regular windows instead of just showing up at one of two or three sizes.

Google won’t say whether it will be making a Chrome OS-based tablet itself, but did reiterate in a statement that “partners will be able to build a variety of form factors with Chrome OS including convertibles, detachables and tablets.”

You may remember that Google already has made a tablet, the Android-based (and therefore ill-fated) Pixel C. Google wouldn’t comment on whether there would be another one of those — but there’s no reason to believe that the Pixel brand is only tied to phones going forward. Put another way: a Chrome OS-based Pixel C would probably have fared way better than it did on Android.

One last point. There’s a particularly fun rabbit hole for certain kinds of nerds: device codenames. Chrome OS devices have an amusing (and confusing) history here, with Nintendo-themed names and a USB-C dongle codenamed “dingdong.” A dingdong dongle. But the latest one to get Chrome blogs excited is “Poppy,” because if you dig through the open-source logs for the Chromium project you’ll find tantalizing references to a “DETACHABLE_UI config option” and resetting via power button combinations (like Android tablets do it) instead of keyboard combinations. So that is apparently getting worked on.

But new Chrome OS form factors don’t necessarily mean success. To make a tablet work, you need both a desktop-class browser and apps — and Android apps have historically been pretty awful at the tablet screen size.

Rajen says that Google is working hard to get Android apps to work better on larger screens. It’s possible that Chrome OS’s huge education install base could finally be the thing that gooses developers into creating apps that don’t feel like blown-up phone apps. Google is certainly hoping so, noting that Adobe has reworked its Android apps to better support Chromebooks.

So if you’ve been wondering where all the Android tablets have gone — here’s a guess. They’ve been held back because it seems like something better is coming: Chrome OS tablets with a real desktop browser and real Android apps. That kind of system probably has a better chance of success competing with the iPad — but let’s not set Android’s sights quite that high yet. A more reasonable target: undercutting the Surface and all its clones on the low end of the market.