May 05, 2016

Can Android apps finally make Chromebooks usable?


If you’ve been keeping up with Google news, I bet you read that Google’s Chrome OS — the web browser operating system that the company has been peddling since 2011 — might soon support Android apps directly from the Google Play Store.
Why is this a big deal? It’s simple. Chrome OS, as it currently exists, is little more than the Chrome browser with a keyboard, trackpad, and some local storage — typically around 16 or 32GB — attached to it. Sure, it runs anything that can run in the browser, and God knows nearly everything — WhatsApp, Netflix, Google Docs, Microsoft Office, Slack…I could go on and on — runs in a browser these days.
Even then, relying on a browser to do everything can be…rather limiting. Broadband in India is still dismal, and most people are still hardwired to “install” software on their laptops to be productive. Living in the cloud entirely — a prerequisite for using Chrome OS — isn’t something that most Indians are comfortable with yet.
I write about technology, however, so naturally, I went the cloud-only route since last year. You can read all about it here, but here’s what I’m trying to say: I’m a favourable candidate to use a Chromebook as my primary computer, and now that it seems like Chrome OS might actually run full-fledged Android apps, things look more promising than ever before.
Last week I decided to take stock of all the apps I use on my Mac and see if they had any Android equivalents that I could run on a Chromebook to do anything that a web app or a Chrome extension cannot. Here’s what I found.
  • I spend most of my time in the Chrome browser, but I also have music playing in the background on iTunes. iTunes will likely never come Chrome OS, but the Apple Music app is available for Android. This is great, because Apple Music, unlike its competitors, has no web version that you can use in a browser — so not only can I use the Apple Music Android app on Chrome OS but also download songs offline since that’s a feature that is supported.
  • For password management, I use 1Password which has a full-fledged Mac app. On Chrome OS, the only way to access it was via its web version through Dropbox. Since 1Password has an Android app, it will make this password manager on Chrome OS usable. I have my doubts if the auto-filling features of the Android app will work on the computer. We’ll just have to wait and see if these Android apps will integrate with Chrome OS to the core or just run in some emulator-like windowed mode. LastPass, another great password manager, might be easier to use on Chrome OS, though, since it has a really good web version.
  • I archive personal documents —stuff I want to read later — to my Kindle. But there are times when I don’t have my Kindle with me, so I access the archived content on my phone using the Kindle app. Sure, Amazon has Kindle Cloud reader, a service that lets you read Kindle books in the browser, but it doesn’t support personal documents. In this case the Android version of the Amazon Kindle app running on Chrome OS could save the day.
  • There are times when I perform basic image-editing like cropping, annotations, and stitching multiple images together. Today, I have to rely on web-based photo editing tools like Pixlr and PicMonkey. But I could use something like Photoshop Express, which has a slick Android app, to do basic image manipulation on Chrome OS.
  • I use the Teewe Desktop app to sometimes stream torrents onto the TV directly. Unfortunately, since Teewe doesn’t have this functionality on their Android app, there’s no way I’ll be able to use this if I move to Chrome OS.
  • I don’t really play games on my computer, but if Android apps do come to Chrome OS, Android gamers will be able to access all their mobile games on their computer.
I’ll be curious to see how well the notifications of these Android apps will merge with the Chrome OS notification center. Will they support quick actions like they do on Android, for instance?
All this is speculation, but the bottom line is that Android apps coming to Chrome OS would be super helpful. I could actually switch from a MacBook to a Chromebook as my primary computer and not regret it. Sure, it may have just 32GB or 64GB of storage at most, but if I can do with that much storage on my phone, there’s no reason why it won’t be enough on a computer. And if you really need it, cloud storage is now inexpensive (Google Drive offers 100GB for ₹140 a month).
But the real question is what will I gain by moving to a Chromebook? And that’s probably a question anybody contemplating buying a Chromebook will strongly ask. Google’s talking points about Chrome OS revolve around security, speed, hassle-free, easy syncing and sharing. But most of these things are covered when you buy a Mac too.
And then there’s the cost. Today, a laptop like the Chromebook Pixel is the ideal Chromebook I’ll want to buy. It’s got a pixel-dense display, it’s fast, has great battery life, a very usable trackpad and keyboard, and doesn’t weigh too much. But at almost ₹70,000, it’s only a few thousand rupees cheaper than a Retina MacBook Pro, which not only has all those features, but is also a real computer for the few times I need it to be one (editing video, or quickly connecting my printer, for instance). This is where my reasonable side will argue about going the safer route of buying a Mac instead of experimenting with thousands of rupees on a Chromebook. Granted, after the arrival of Android apps, the experiment will be safer but it will still feel like an experiment.
There’s no doubt that as the years go by, more and more people will realise the only real thing they need in a computer is a web browser, and Chrome OS might finally be good enough for everyone. But it will take more than just Android apps for Chrome OS to convince most of us today — Chromebooks can benefit from cheaper pricing, or from being more tightly integrated with your smartphone the way Apple does with the iPhone and the Mac, where users can use their Mac to make and receive calls from their iPhones, and send text messages.
Google’s annual developer conference, Google I/O, is less than two weeks away. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some big announcements around Chrome OS and Android.

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Rohan is a writer of FactorDaily.