Updated. Moving to smartphone chips for its new Chromebook is a good move for Google, reducing the cost to manufacture the devices and therefore making them less expensive for consumers. But there is a slight expense in terms of compatibility. How can that be when Chromebooks only run apps in a browser and that browser is Chrome? It turns out that moving to ARM-based chips adds a wee bit of fragmentation to the Chromebook platform; at least for now.
Computerworld blogger JR Raphael and I realized this at roughly the same time. As I was testing a web-based game for a performance test, Raphael was checking Netflix. Neither of one of us was able to run our respective web apps: Netflix for him and Bastion for me. I wondered what the commonality was and came to the conclusion that both web apps rely on Google’s Native Client (NaCL) technology. This lets native apps run inside a browser with very little performance hit.
I figured NaCL was related as Netflix was originally one of the first NaCL apps for Chrome OS. And the error message when trying to run Bastion? “Native Client not allowed” is all I could get. Both of these apps run fine on the older Chromebooks powered by Intel chips. I did try going into the Chrome OS settings — type “about:flags” in Chrome to see these — and enabled all of the NaCL options, which are off by default. After a restart, Netflix still didn’t work, although I was able to get past the error message on Bastion. Unfortunately, it hangs at the splash screen.
I’ve reached out to Google with my observations to see if they will confirm my thoughts; if I’m right, I’d like to know when this issue will be resolved but it’s would probably be up to each individual web app maker. I’ll update this post with any response.
It appears that ChromeOS on ARM processors does support NaCL, but it’s possible — very likely, even — that the native code for Netflix, Bastion, and perhaps other web apps needs to be recompiled from x86 to ARM before they can run on Google’s newest Chromebook. Is this a major issue? For Netflix users, maybe, but I expect that very few web apps actually rely on NaCL just yet. Still, I’ll be a happier Chromebook owner once this situation is resolved.
Update: I heard back from a Google spokesperson who provided the following statement: “We are working to enable Native Client on the new Samsung Chromebook, and we will be working closely with app vendors to bring their NaCl-based apps over. The apps will automatically update as soon as they’re available.” With a new chip architecture for Google’s Chrome OS platform, there’s bound to be some transitional pain, but it looks like Google is well aware and working on it.