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Google just revealed it's 'bringing the Play Store to Chromebooks'

Rob Pegoraro
This is what the Google Play store could look like on your laptop.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF. — You can officially stop calling Android Google’s mobile operating system: That operating system and its selection of 1.5 million or so apps will soon arrive on laptops and desktops running Google’s Chrome OS.

The news came during a presentation at the Alphabet, Inc. (GOOG) subsidiary’s I/O conference here Thursday morning.

"Apps have become a central part of our everyday lives," said Kan Liu, director of product management for Chrome OS. "We're bringing the Play Store to Chromebooks."

How this will work

When Google ships this option to Chromebooks, you’ll see a Play Store icon in the usual Chrome OS taskbar. (This option ships in June for users of three recent models running the development version of Chrome OS, later this year for everyday users on a much wider selection of Chromebook laptops and a few Chromebox desktops.)

That should let you install almost any Android app, which will then run in its own window. And unlike most of the web apps that until now have represented the core of the browser-based Chrome OS, most Android apps can run offline.

Google is still testing how well this Android support will work on older Chromebooks, but Liu said after the presentation he expects anything shipped within the last two years to pass muster.

Chrome OS was never built to run separate apps like this, and Android apps aren’t coded to run on laptops. To deal with this issue, Chrome OS keeps Android apps in a separate container that allows them to act as if they’re just on a phone that happens to have a larger screen and attached keyboard.

This gets around one potential hangup with Android apps: Many of them don’t yet support the automatic backup system Google introduced with last year’s Marshmallow update. Instead, Chrome’s own sync engine will ensure they stay current from one Chromebook to the next.

Some Android apps may still not run if they require hardware not found in current Chromebooks; in those cases, the Play Store won’t let you install the app — something that can already happen on Android phones and tablets.

Google executives here suggested we’d soon see some Chromebooks adding phone-like features such as GPS to remedy that issue.

If you don’t want any of this complexity — a real possibility, especially in business and educational markets that prize the assured simplicity of Chrome OS — you can decline all of it. Organizations can also allow only specified Android apps.

What could that mean to Chrome OS — and Android

Liu led off the presentation by bragging a little about Chrome OS’s success since its 2009 introduction: In the first quarter of 2016, according to statistics from the research firm IDC, Chrome OS shipments outpaced OS X shipments.

(IDC analyst Linn Huang e-mailed that 1.6 million Chrome OS computers shipped over those three months, versus 1.5 million Macs.)

Simple, secure, mostly cheap Chromebooks were appealing enough when they could only run rich web apps like Google Docs (disclosure: what I’m using to write this post). Adding the ability to run almost anything off the Android app menu should only boost their sales.

That could be especially true among mobile-first users who currently have to set aside phone apps like Snapchat to use a “real” computer. Observed Liu: "I'm not saying you should do this, but you can actually write your term paper and get your snaps, all on the same device without ever having to take your phone out of your pocket.”

This option will also be “transformational” to the more than 2 million businesses using the Google Apps bundle of services and apps, said Rajen Sheth, Google’s senior director of product management for Android and Chrome for Work.

We’ll have to see about that, as well as Liu’s suggestion that making Android apps more of a desktop proposition will let developers charge higher prices.

We’ll have also have to see how getting Android to run on diverse Chromebooks by abstracting it from their underlying hardware can boost similar efforts to decouple Android from the guts of phones and tablets. That’s traditionally required manufacturers and then phone carriers to test each Android update, which has held up their releases by months and sometimes forever.

On Chromebooks, Google says Android updates will ship automatically and routinely. That should leave Android’s mobile users even fewer reasons to be happy with the slow pace of updates there.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro