The Chromebook Pro was meant to be a grand coming-out party for Android apps running on Chrome OS. The Samsung device would show Google’s ability to not just dominate the education space with web apps, but remove the “native app” issue for anybody that was holding out. But the feature has been stuck in a buggy beta for months and the device itself was delayed. Not great.
We fully expected an update this year at Google I/O, and now we have one. Although Google chose not to say anything up on a big stage, there is good news, bad news, and potentially very exciting news to share. "I don't want to overpromise,” says Kan Liu, senior director of product management for Chrome OS. But he says soon Google will be ready to kick off the splashy product launch we were supposed to have earlier this year.
First, the good news: Google expects the Chromebook Pro to be released on May 28th, complete with support for Android apps running on the Nougat platform. That will mean they’ll fully support window resizing, docking to the side of the screen, and split-view. “It will be the first time that we're shipping this new version,” says Liu.
Now, the exciting news: Liu plans to begin releasing some Android features on Chrome OS before they arrive on phones. “Dessert releases tend to have a yearly release cycle,” says Liu. And that’s not fast enough for what he wants to do on Chrome OS. “We actually want to decouple ourselves from that. Because Chromebooks have a six-week release cycle."
That will mean that some Android features from O — like improved keyboard shortcuts — will start working on apps running on Chrome OS well before they arrive on phones. "For things that makes sense on this form-factor — APIs and features that we think are important for our users — we're going to be pulling stuff in whenever it's ready," says Liu.
But of course, there’s bad news: Android apps on Chrome OS will still technically be in Beta when the Chromebook Pro launches.
Essentially, Liu believes that Android apps on Chrome OS are “80 percent” ready for most users. Right now, he thinks the ideal use case for Android on Chromebooks is for people who need just that one app — like Skype or a particular game. Even in beta, he argues, Android apps are ready for that kind of user. He says there are more “guardrails” that ensure that Android apps that expect to be run on phones operate better on larger Chromebook screens. More of them will default to phone view, for example.
But Liu wants to enable a good experience for people who want to do more than just use an Android app on the side now and then, so he’s driving his team to finish polishing up those “power user” cases involving split screen apps, resizing, and the other Android Nougat features we’ve been waiting for. It’s just taking longer than Google originally promised. “The first 80 percent is 20 percent of the work, the last 20 percent is 80 percent of the work,” says Liu.
So while the Chromebook Pro will have those better features, it will take a few of those six-week release cycles before it will be ready to exit beta and get pushed out in a bigger way. Liu puts is this way: "When we do get it right, our intention is to go big."
The process to get here hasn’t been easy, in part because the task is nowhere near as simple as you might expect. The Chromebook Pro hardware itself needed to be redesigned. Issues with the thermals and antennas meant some things had to get shifted around. Google itself handles the software stack, so it needed to tweak that software as Samsung tweaked the hardware.
That software work was just for the Pro, but Google also needed to do much more than you might realize to get Android apps working across any Chromebook. Without getting too technical, there isn’t just a window with an Android emulator inside Chrome OS — instead it’s more tightly integrated with the whole system. But Android apps targeted to different, older versions of Android might behave badly when they get put on a big screen. Google even feels it necessary to support all sorts of very old apps (going back to Android Donut, a 2009 release!) so that it can cover “edge cases and corner cases” that users might have.
But even when Google finally does “go big” and take Android apps out of beta, the company isn’t going to try to get users to abandon web apps. Even when Android apps are working better, many of them simply aren’t going to look great on a big screen. Some will still default to a phone size and Google will pop up a warning to users to resize them. Others simply just can’t compete with web versions of the same. "I don't ever expect anybody to use the Android version of Facebook on this,” says Liu. “Because the web version is much better."
Liu says that it was “not our vision at all” to have users drop web apps for Android apps on Chrome OS wholesale. They’re still largely meant to be things that fill in gaps that web apps can’t fill: like games, downloading Netflix movies, and those weird edge cases. Right now, half of the top ten most used Android apps on Chromebooks are games.
In the end, the story of Android apps on Chrome OS is the same story of nearly every other Google product we’ve heard about this year at Google I/O. Coming soon, but the really big changes will happen later this year. Google is willing to release half-developed versions of its products to its users so they can try them out. And it’s fair to call those things half-baked because that’s literally what they are, half-done.
Or in the case of Android on Chrome OS, 80 percent done. They key is finishing that last 20 percent, and Chrome OS is a big enough deal now that Google can’t leave a key feature in beta forever.