Google has two mobile consumer operating systems: Android and Chrome OS. Android is the more popular operating system, being designed for a touchscreen and optimised for the smartphone platform. Chrome OS is optimised for the laptop or keyboard / desktop platform and does not need a touchscreen. Both are based on LINUX, but are structured rather differently. The Chrome OS is essentially the Google Chrome browser running on top of a simplified LINUX base. And for a time, these two platforms have existed side by side catering for a different market. However, over the last two years we have seen persistent rumours that Android and Chrome OS were going to be pushed together. These came in the shape that the two platforms would merge, something that has been denied by Google. We have, however, seen Google's executives saying that the two will be closer aligned. This closer relationship is likely to be driven by the changes in the laptop market, where touchscreen convertible devices are becoming more popular.
One of the structural differences between the two platforms is how they operate. Chrome OS is designed very much to be a thin client and relying on Google's infrastructure. Applications and data can be downloaded and run on the device, but the Chrome OS platform has been optimised to cache data from the Google service in local storage and synchronise it when it has an Internet connection. In the past, one project that could easily see the two platforms much closer is giving Chrome OS the ability to run Android applications. Google has already experimented with this, as have other developers: there are a number of Android applications that will run on the Chrome OS platform with a little tweaking. This is the ARC project and it allows Chrome OS to run applications written for other platforms including Android and Windows. However, official news has been quiet on the subject but it appears Google has been quietly working on the project.
Reddit user TheWiseYoda has spotted something interesting. Firstly, a new option has appeared in the Google Chromebook settings: "Enable Android Apps to run on your Chromebook." This is not especially exciting in itself but the code commit contains a reference to the Google Play Store. This means that over a million applications could be available for the Chromebook platform taken directly from the Android collection. This opens up a potentially new and huge market for developers and could expand the functionality of our Chromebooks. There are a couple of caveats to this, however. One is that whilst Chrome OS is designed to be hardware agnostic – that is, it will run on Intel and ARM hardware and each model is kept up to date for five years since launch – it is possible that not all Chromebooks will support the new feature. Customers of older models may find that only some applications are compatible, or that performance is limited. Perhaps some Chromebook models that are still in their five year support window will not have access to the Google Play Store, although this would seem unlikely. Instead, it is more likely that older, slower Chromebooks will simply run applications less quickly than newer models, which is what we would expect. The second caveat is that we don't know when the feature will be be made available. It could be at the next Google I/O… but it might not be. Regular readers will remember that last year, Google was silent about Chrome OS.
Nevertheless, allowing Android applications to run on the Chromebook could be very good news indeed especially for customers with both an Android smartphone and Chromebook. Perhaps a future evolution of Chrome OS could see the Chromebook platform looking closer to the Google Pixel C device, and running similar applications and services?