Issues to watch out for – Google Play on Chromebooks

Posted on 24 May 2016, Last updated on 17 June 2018 by

Google Play is coming to ChromeOS later this year and when it does Chromebooks will become truly offline capable, will leapfrog Windows laptops in some app categories and will have an app engine that could drive development of new types of ChromeOS products. I hope that by now you’ve heard the very exciting news that the Google Play Store, originally for Android smartphones and tablets, is coming to Chrome OS. The new, effectively virtualized, Android Marshmallow OS is likely to drive development of more widescreen / largescreen apps, boost development of advanced ChromeOS products and allow Chrome OS to be one of the first desktop operating systems that has  wider support for the quickly growing segments of IoT, wearables, ‘flyables’, home automation, local transport, health and data analytics, areas that Windows 10 desktop and mobile are struggling with.

There will be limitations of course, and that’s what I want to walk through now.

The problems of Google Play app store on Chromebooks

PC hardware is not the same as smartphone hardware. It’s generally not designed for always-on operation and you often don’t find the communications and sensor modules you need for a lot of smartphone applications. Most Chromebooks, for example, don’t have a 3G/4G data module. Bluetooth LE, GPS and ambient light sensors are rare. If the app you want to run insists on accessing hardware that you don’t have you could find yourself being kicked out of the app, despite the latest OS being able to install the app.

Touchscreen Chromebooks. There are a small number of them available but the 2-in-1 touchscreen Chromebook needs to be developed further. When will be see the first Chromebook detachable. Next week at Computex?

The 2-in-1 OS architecture that Google have here is interesting. Firstly, it’s an official dual-OS configuration. Secondly it’s not trying to put desktop capability into a phone as Microsoft is with Continuum which means the host PCs for this Android OS are generally more powerful than the phones that it was originally built for. That’s not the case with Windows Continuum where the expectations of desktop speed and multitasking aren’t met.

Always-on is a problem on ChromeOS. Alarms, music streaming and background data / app notification and updates won’t work when the Chromebook is sleeping. Windows has an always on mode (Connected Standby) but Chrome OS doesn’t so that needs to be fixed, especially if Google want to promote a Chrome OS tablet.

Cameras will be a problem too. The quality of the face-facing cam needs to be improved and, somehow, Chrome OS needs higher quality cams for apps like Periscope and other video apps.

I have a worry about storage separation. Will both Android and Chrome OS have separate network paths to Google Drive? How will that data duplication be handled? What about simultaneous access to internal storage? Will the Android OS and data be encrypted on top of the encrypted Chrome OS storage?

Memory. Don’t buy another Chromebook with 2 GB RAM. 2 GB already had issues as you see in my Chromebook 2 GB vs 4 GB RAM test here but with the Android visualization and the potential increase in the number of running apps you’ll be much safer with 4 GB RAM.

Very Low DPI screens could cause problems for some apps. In fact many apps are going to look terrible in landscape mode on Chromebooks. I’ve experienced it on the Google Android Pixel, on Windows Continuum and older multi-screen OS’. It’s really jarring when you find a favorite application looking so old and basic.

Security is a question. Chrome OS is built with security in mind and because of its relative obscurity it won’t be getting as much hacking firepower directed at it but no one can deny that more complexity means more bugs and more attack vectors. We don’t know the details of the Android container yet (it’s not based on the existing Chrome OS ART structure) so we can’t say but it will mean more work for Google to keep everything locked down. My feeling is that they are doing a good job and it’s likely to remain less of a security risk than Windows 10 simply because of its younger age and ‘built with security in mind’ focus.

Built-for-ChromeOS apps might start to filter in through the Google Play Store over time meaning that the old browser-based HTML5 model might fall in popularity. Is this bad? It’s a signal that Google could be reducing its effort in browser-only Internet. I’ve seen Intel move away from their promotion of HTML5 in recent years and the common belief in a mobile-first strategy means there’s even less reason to develop a complex website.

Local storage. We’re going to be more than 16 GB and more than 32 GB if we start using local creative apps, photo management tools, local app storage and video editing apps  and online storage won’t be fast enough.

We’ve learnt over the last 5 years that getting developers to write smartphone applications for large-screen usage on tablets and landscape mode devices such as laptops is a tough task. ChromeOS is a good re-start in that respect because it’s a new operating system that’s simple and secure at its core. It has the potential to wipe-out low-cost Windows laptops for consumers but only if developers take it on board. Will large-screen Android application development be easier and cheaper than Windows? I think so but I don’t expect it to happen until Chromebooks and ChromeOS tablets solve some of the issues mentioned above.

The first development versions of Chrome OS with Google Play support will be filtering in next month and many more Chromebooks will get the feature later in the year. Look to the Computex trade show (starting this week) for indicators about new ChromeOS hardware and the future direction of low-cost consumer focused Windows hardware.


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