Chrome OS Gains Official Google Play Store Support — What You Need to Know
We’ve been hearing murmurs about official Play Store support coming over to Chrome OS, but today, Google has made the move official.
With this latest move, Chrome OS and Chromebooks get the ability to access the whole app ecosystem available on the Google Play Store, without compromising on the experience. This opens up the potential of Chrome OS as something much more than a lightweight web-oriented OS, attracting more people to a already popular ecosystem of apps. Developers also have an new target demography, so they can now bring their apps to the laptop environment in a much easier fashion.
The previous implementation of Android Runtime on Chrome (ARC) was not the easiest for developers to partake in (and limited to a small number of apps), but it had the advantage of being OS-independent as long as the OS supported Chrome with extensions.
With this, Chrome OS and Android as a whole move one step closer to convergence since a large part of the appeal of Android as an OS is its app ecosystem. Google Play will start rolling out to the developer channels with M53 on the ASUS Chromebook Flip, the Acer Chromebook R11 and the Chromebook Pixel (2015). The list of supported Chromebooks can be found here. More Chromebooks will be added over time, including non-touch Chromebooks; and more Chromebooks will also be launched with an eye set on the new-found Play integration. Full-scale rollout in the stable channels will be done towards the end of Q3 2016.
The team over at Ars Technica had a chance to dig deeper on the new Play Store support on Chrome OS, and they had a few observations of their own. The Chrome OS team is working towards a seamless experience, involving zero effort from app developers in providing support for Chrome OS. The goal is to have all Android apps behave as they would on a phone, with the difference being that apps here would live inside the Chrome OS window and not Android.
Chrome OS will have a few tricks up its sleeve, since the purpose of Chrome OS was and is different from Android in the context of work and play. Google is promising “multiple levels of granularity” on control of Android apps for Chrome OS administrators. Admins in a company environment would need to explicitly enable Google Play Store functionality, so they can choose to have Chrome OS function sans Play if their purpose needs it to. There was also a mention of an app whitelist to Ars Technica, which should provide a good middle ground between the two extreme situations of no-apps and all-apps.
Also, in typical Google fashion, Chrome OS will now have two app stores. The Chrome Web Store will continue to feature Chrome extensions and themes, while the Play Store will be the Play Store.
ARC v/s Containers
So, how does this support work? As Ars Technica found out, this is not based on ARC. ARC required a lot of porting work, which proved to be a major roadblock in its adoption. Further, apps that were written with the Native Development Kit were not compatible with ARC, which locked out the possibility of most games ever reaching Chrome OS. ARC also could not pass through Google’s own Compatibility Test Suite, and the modifications needed to make it CTS compliant would be difficult to undertake.
So the new implementation started things afresh, from scratch. What the team came up with was to run an unmodified copy of the Android Framework running inside of a container. The entire Android Framework, down as low as the HAL (Hardware Abstraction Layer), is bundled up in a container and loaded onto Chrome OS to give you your very own Android space.
With this new implementation, Google promises “virtually no work” for the app developer outside of the standard Play Store publish. The container approach removes a lot of limitations of using something like a virtual machine environment, as containers leave the road open for apps to interact with the base OS. This approach is also much less resource intensive than a VM approach on a per-app basis.
One of the weakest points of Android as an OS against Chrome as an OS is the updates. Since Chrome OS would now include an Android app framework, part of the problem does migrate over an OS that has followed seamless updates since a while. But, since the Chrome team exercises full control over Chrome OS (no forks) and has a centralized update system, the team expects an almost 100% update adoption rate to the newest version of Android for all Android-enabled Chromebooks. This promise works in complement with the Android monthly security program just like on Nexus devices. So updates might not be a sore point with one part of the Android market after all.
With regards how the newest announced features like Instant Apps would work with Chrome OS, it is being claimed that it should work theoretically. The Chrome OS team still needs to extensively test it and polish it out, but the project plan certainly exists for making Instant Apps a talking feature on this as well.
Long story made super short: no, the Android side of this implementation is not open source, just as Chrome OS isn’t. (Just to avoid confusion, Chromium OS is open source, but Chrome OS is not entirely equal to Chromium OS).
Even though the Chrome OS team admits that it took advantage of a lot of work from the open source community, there are no current plans to open source the work as it allows the team to continue work at a faster pace. They do not entirely rule out open sourcing it in the future upon full public launch, but as of now, it shall remain closed source.
Google I/O 2016 certainly turned out to be a big change for Chrome OS and the direction in which it will evolve. Rather than be a distinct entity, Chrome OS now has its fate intertwined with Android and the Play Store ecosystem. Are we finally coming close to a complete desktop experience with Android?
What are your thoughts on Chrome OS gaining full Google Play support? How will this affect Chrome OS, and how will this affect Android? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!