Android apps are coming to Chromebooks, but there’s a catch

Photo by Janko Roettgers/Gigaom

Google’s Sundar Pichai had a lot to share on stage the Google I/O 2014 keynote on Wednesday. Between Pichai and another half-dozen Googlers, the keynote ran for about 2.5 hours, bombarding attendees with information on new features for Android, Chrome and other initiatives. So it makes sense that some things only got a few minutes of attention, and one of items that was actually the most interesting came when Pichai said Android apps are coming Google’s Chrome OS.

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On the surface that sounds great. There’s a bit of a catch though. If you thought the entire Android catalog of apps — some hundreds of thousands of titles — would magically and instantly work on a Chromebook, you thought wrong. These aren’t currently existing Android apps running in some type of virtual machine on a Chromebook. Instead, Pichai used the word “port” a few times, meaning Android software developers can bring their Android apps to Chrome if they don’t mind a little effort.

It’s still good news for Chrome OS, which has largely been dismissed as “just a browser” by some for years. By comparison, Chromebooks can run relatively few apps when compared to other platforms. Adding Android apps will definitely help the situation, letting Chrome OS users run traditional looking apps as well as web apps.

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Pichai showed off a few examples such as Evernote and Vine. The latter is particularly interesting because the app can access the camera of a Chromebook in order to capture a video in-app. Google and others have been working on giving HTML 5 apps access to device hardware such as cameras and sensors. These examples aren’t terribly complicated apps; at least not by comparison to a graphics heavy game title for mobiles. I found these an interesting choice to show off, as a result.

The news is also an extension of what Google announced at last year’s I/O event; only in the opposite direction. In 2013, Google showed off Chrome apps running on Android using Packaged App and Native Client technologies. These tools let developers port or package their web-based apps to behave like native Android apps. This year, it’s a reverse situation using new tools: Getting Android apps ported over to Chrome.

Google is trying to make it easier for developers to do this, but it will take time for that to happen. Don’t expect tens of thousands of Android apps on your Chromebook any time soon as a result.

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