Linux app support is coming to Chrome OS starting with the Pixelbook
For much of Chrome OS’ early history, the operating system was seen as a glorified web browser. As the OS has matured, that view has become unwarranted: Chrome OS has since added offline capability and Android app support to significantly expand its feature set. Google’s next big step is to entice developers by introducing Linux app support, available in preview form on the Google Pixelbook.
Chromebooks are excellent machines for people on a budget, and the growing app support thanks to Android apps and Progressive Web Apps means that most users sacrifice little when moving from a comparable Microsoft Windows or macOS laptop. For developers, however, Chrome OS doesn’t offer tools like Visual Studio, Firebase, Google Cloud SDK, or Android Studio, making a Chromebook a hard sell. High-end Chromebooks like the Google Pixelbook are certainly capable of handling development while on-the-go, but the software support just hasn’t been there.
Enterprising developers have used Crouton to install GNU/Linux distributions, but this requires a level of technical know-how that is off-putting to many people. In addition, Crouton isn’t a perfect solution as you might encounter annoying bugs that require equally annoying workarounds. Lastly, enabling Crouton requires switching to Developer Mode, which means losing security measures such as Verified Boot. But that will change in the future thanks to Google’s work on containers.
Linux apps on Chrome OS
Linux app support will be possible thanks to containerization. The integration will be far more seamless than running a GNU/Linux distribution via chroot: You can start Linux apps from the Launcher with a mouse click, move windows around, and open files directly from apps. The app window theme will even be based on a modified version of the Adapta Gtk theme, a beautiful Material Design-inspired theme. You’ll have access to the wide range of popular developer tools available on most GNU/Linux distributions, which Google hopes will convince developers to start developing on a Chromebook and not an Apple MacBook or Microsoft Surface. And for those of you who are familiar with desktop Linux, you won’t have to change how you install new apps: Installation via apt-get in the command line or downloading tarballs should all work.
Linux app support on Chrome OS is internally called “Crostini” by Google, and we’ve tracked it extensively in the past few weeks. Some Chromebook owners on the latest Dev or Canary channels may have noticed a new menu item for Linux apps in Settings: That’s for Crostini, and while it only works on the Google Pixelbook, Google promises to bring support for other Chromebooks in the future. Google wants to make sure that Crostini works well enough before a wider rollout, and by testing it on a smaller user base first (ie. Pixelbook owners daring enough to run their machines on the Dev or Canary channel) they’ll be able to stamp out as many bugs as possible.
But don’t expect Crostini to roll out to every Chromebook on the market. According to Kan Liu, director of product management for Chrome OS, Linux app support requires Linux kernel 4.4 and above due to the underlying technology that Crostini takes advantage of. And currently, GPU acceleration isn’t available, so those of you who are looking to game on your Chromebook are out of luck. As discovered by our very own Kieran Miyamoto and confirmed by Mr. Liu, however, GPU acceleration support is coming later this year.
For now, the team wants to focus on the needs of developers. If you’ve eyed a Pixelbook recently, then now’s a good time to jump in. You can also wait a bit as other Chromebook manufacturers are working on high-end Pixelbook competitors. Investing in a Pixelbook or other Chromebook either now or in the future is a good idea anyway given the rapid expansion of Chrome OS in recent years.
Developing for a rapidly growing Chromebook user base
Google’s Chrome OS is a juggernaut in the education sector. According to NPD, Chromebooks drove nearly one-quarter of all notebooks sales during Black Friday week in 2017. Furthermore, twice as many Chromebooks were sold in 2017 compared to 2016. Tablets running the operating system are coming soon, and that’s thanks to interest in the form factor from schools. As the operating system becomes more touch-friendly, there’s growing demand for apps designed for touchscreen Chrome OS devices.
Take the popular Evernote note-taking app as an example. In a case study, the company claims that, after implementing the low latency stylus API for touchscreen handwriting, Pixelbook users spent 4x as much time in the app compared to the average user. Another note-taking app called Squid also saw great success by optimizing for Chrome OS: Chromebooks accounted for 7% of their overall user base in the last 30 days but made up 21% of their revenue.
Chrome OS is highly valued for its speed, simplicity, and security. It’s an operating system that developers often recommend their non-technologically savvy friends and family use to make their lives easier. But the operating system doesn’t offer much to convince developers themselves to actually migrate to the ecosystem. Adding Linux app support to the OS is a major step forward to meet that goal.