What Google Play Store on Chrome OS Means for You

By May 24, 2016News

By now you’ve probably heard about Google’s plan to make Android apps available for Chrome OS later this year. As news rolled in from the Google I/O Developers Conference, I saw the announcement and that there were some caveats. I wanted to understand what this is going to mean for us as Chrome device users.

Is now a bad time to get a Chromebook, since not all models are supported? How will the new app store affect how we use our Chrome devices?

I watched the Google presentation to get the information straight from the source. Now, I want to share with you what I learned: how the integration will work, who it affects, and when we can start benefiting from it.

What will the Google Play Store on Chrome OS mean for us?

This change is going to open up a lot of options for us users, and I think it’s going to make Chrome devices more popular. Designers and bloggers will get the benefit of the Photoshop mobile apps, so they don’t have to use Windows or Mac to do quick image edits. Gamers will get access to a bunch of games that have been missing, like Minecraft and Angry Birds. Remote workers get more productivity tools like Microsoft Office and Acrobat PDF Reader.

There’s been speculation that the availability of mobile print drivers will improve the printing process.

I’m interested in the prospect of getting to call an Uber or use other services that have been limited to mobile.  If Instagram works on Chrome, that will be only desktop OS that is supporting it!

Will the Play Store work with my Chromebook?

Based on what I’ve seen, the Android app store should be available for Chromebooks made from late 2014 forward. There’s a list of Chrome devices that Google is planning to support for the feature once it’s widely available. But in June, only Asus 10″ flip, Acer Chromebook R11, and Pixel 2015 will get the Play Store.

I was curious why it’s limited to certain models. I found a reasonable explanation from Joe Ellett in the Google Chromebook Forum:

“The best theory is that models with a kernel of 3.10 or higher will get Android, since container support was introduced in 3.10. Once a model is released, the kernel is not updated. It still gets Chrome OS updates for several years but the kernel stays at the same level. To check your kernel, so chrome://system and look for the line that says uname.”

I checked my Dell Chromebook 11″ 3120, which I got early this year. It shows 3.10.18, and it is listed as a supported model, so I am stoked to be getting access to the Android Apps later this year.

I can now recommend a Chromebook for my Dad’s house. It was a no-go before because they wouldn’t be able to play Minecraft!

When can you get Android Apps?

The earliest adopters can get it on only the three initial models (Asus 10″ flip, Acer Chromebook R11, and Pixel 2015) as early as June 2016. There will be bugs, so it’s not good for your main computer. It’s really intended to give Android app developers a chance to do any updates and test their apps.

The Play Store is slated to go out to the beta channel in August 2016. It’s not clear how many models will be supported at that time. Casual users who like their software finished can get it sometime in fall 2016, hopefully to all the models in the list.

How will the app store integration work? Let’s get technical

I checked out ARC Welder and had limited success getting it to run games. As it turns out, Google found a better way to get Android apps to run on Chrome OS. As James Welbes over at Chromestory also noted, Google is going to use containers, which basically means there will be an instance of Android running in Chrome OS but segregated from it. The segregation is good news because it increases security by isolating potentially malicious Android apps from your Chrome OS instance.

What’s more, app developers don’t have to rewrite their apps for Chrome OS. Google put in a hardware abstraction layer and binary translation from ARM to x86. That takes care of the differences in hardware between mobile devices and desktop ones.

Here’s what else we know about how the integration will work in practice:

  • Apps will keep their offline capabilities that they have as mobile apps.
  • The Android apps will look like desktop apps, complete with resizable windows.
  • The Google Play (Android app) Store and the Chrome Web Store will stay separate. That way, managed Chromebooks in schools and businesses can block access to Android apps.
  • Interestingly, support for the Play Store is not limited to touchscreen Chromebooks. In the Google presentation, they encouraged Android app developers to test their apps with a keyboard and mouse.
  • Not all apps will work though. For mobile apps that require hardware that is not present in Chrome devices (e.g., fine grained GPS for turn-by-turn directions), those apps will not show up in the Play Store for Chrome.

Here is the original presentation video, queued up to the short demo.

Wrap up and future questions

What will Android apps mean for the future of Chrome devices? Will this remove the remaining roadblocks that are causing people to balk about getting one? Which apps will work right away? Will Chromebooks with SIM card slots be able to make phone calls?

I look forward to finding out the answers and sharing them with you. If you know any of the answers or have questions of your own, you can share them below.

Kain Young

Author Kain Young

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