Android Apps on Your Chromebook

At Google I/O, the company's developer conference in June, it was announced that Chrome OS will now support Android apps natively, and that Chromebooks will run them on-screen in their own windows.

Since most people who have Chromebooks also have phones, greater integration between Android devices and the Chrome OS should come as welcome news.

Great. When?

Sundar Pichai, Google's Senior VP of Android, Chrome and apps, didn't say when the feature would actually arrive.

"We're in early days," was his statement, at the conference. But he did demonstrate some of the functionality that Google proposes.

Integration, in Action

Pichai's demonstration had a Chromebook Pixel using Android apps for Evernote, Flipboard, and Vine. The apps were displayed differently, with Flipboard showing up in an expanded window (as you might see on a tablet), and Vine appearing in a tall, phone-sized window.

Both Android apps run in their own windows, and can operate simultaneously - just like any other apps on the Chromebook. The new versions of Google Docs and Spreadsheets will also run in Chrome OS, natively.

And That's Not All.

·   The apps can access local hardware. So, you could record a Vine from your Chromebook's camera and post directly from the Chromebook, if you wanted. Or paste links and other content from your Chrome browser directly into the Evernote app, and have it sync back to the same app running on your tablet.

·   Chromebooks and phones will also be able to better communicate with one another. Notifications will appear on both devices natively, without third party apps. So, if you're working on a Chromebook and your phone gets a new message or is running low on battery power, you'll be notified on your Chrome OS device.

·   Android will be able to relay alerts for incoming calls, text messages and low battery warnings to the Chrome OS desktop through the Chrome Notification Centre. There’s still no word on if these notifications can be acted on, directly (e.g., answer a call alert from your desktop or reply to a text message) but it's early days.

·   You'll even be able to use your phone to automatically unlock and sign in to your Chromebook. Once the connection is set up, a paired phone will be able to unlock a Chromebook just by coming near it. The proximity-based ‘Easy Unlock’ feature means you can unlock the Chrome OS without having to manually sign in.

·   This function extends to wearables; a conference demo showed a Chromebook unlocking when a user's Android watch was nearby.

·   From Google Play, you'll also be able to download Android apps directly onto your Chromebook, and use them the same way you would on an Android phone or tablet.

A post on Google+ indicates that for now, the only approved apps are Vine, Flipboard and Evernote. Others will probably be added to the list before the feature launches, officially.

It's Not All Good News - Yet

There's still one big hurdle that Chrome OS will have to face when running Android apps: specifically, that the apps are designed for touchscreens, and most Chromebooks don't have them.

True, Chrome OS has worked with touchscreens since the Chromebook Pixel was released last February. But the user experience hasn't been especially good. Some apps are touch-friendly; others aren't.

In addition, not all Chromebooks ship with touchscreens. So, the feature has been more of an option than an integral part of working with the operating system.

But, They're Working On It

In early June 2014, a project for Google's Chromium called Athena pointed toward big changes in the touch aspects of Chrome OS. Improved features included a virtual software keyboard, a card-based interface comparable to Google Now, and a new app launcher interface.

At the I/O conference, Google didn't comment on what future Chromebooks from its development partners will look like, but it does seem likely that more of them will be shipping with touchscreens. Touch input looks set to become a far more integral part of the Chrome OS.

The popularity of the Chromebook device has been growing rapidly. From recent sales, all 10 of the top 10 highest rated laptops on Amazon are Chromebooks. 

With enhanced Android integration, Google looks set to give the product line a major boost.