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Opinion: Google’s future is in AI, but Chrome OS getting the Play Store is a big deal today

play store chrome os

This year’s I/O was a big one. Maybe not the largest in terms of new products and services, but definitely not the smallest either. Among other things, the Mountain View, California company announced its Daydream VR platform for Android, an evolution of the Google Now assistant in the form of an AI-powered “Google Assistant,” a couple of new messaging apps and some hardware to play the part of debuting the Assistant, a new version of Android Wear, and more.

The keynote had this overarching theme that Google is no longer just a company that does search and ads. Now, Google is diving head first into artificial intelligence and machine learning, and most of the things that were announced in the keynote fell into that narrative for the most part. This is the stuff that’s not coming out for at least half a year. Most things, from Allo and Duo to Google Home, felt half-baked. It felt like everything was unfinished, and to some degree, that’s true. It’s still early days.

While Google wanted to paint this big picture of what the company envisions for the next few years and beyond, it saved some of the stuff that’s actually really cool today for other events at the conference. The most obvious of these was the press-only event Google hosted on day 2, showing off a huge new feature for Chrome OS: support for the Play Store that has long been tied down to Android. We’ve known this was coming for a long time, but now it’s here — serving as the next move to make Chrome OS and Android more alike than ever…

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Chrome OS has long been known as that laptop OS that “just does Chrome.” A lot of my family and friends have Chromebooks and love them, but they understand that their Chromebook is a Chrome browser in a box. Amazingly, that’s enough for many use cases, but it’s off-putting for a large number of people who might need access to that one app that they can’t go without. I’ve suggested a Chromebook to many of my peers, but the unfortunate caveat that I’ve always had to mention is that it “can’t do Skype” or “can’t run Office”.

Now, that problem has disappeared. But it’s not like Google is creating a new platform and there are suddenly going to be independent, full-fledged native Chrome OS apps on the Chrome Web Store. No, Google has simply built a way to run the millions of Android apps already available, completely natively, on a plethora of laptops that have long been held back by the weakness that was their lack of core functionality. And the feature comes just as Chromebooks overtook the MacBook in unit sales in Q1 of 2016.

It’s a brilliant solution to the problem, too. Google could have long ago set up an emulator to run Android apps in Chrome, but it would have come at a cost of performance and flexibility. With the solution Google introduced this week, there’s practically no compromise. Android apps will be able to take full advantage of the laptops’ hardware. Of course the Play Store will still restrict certain apps from being installed in the first place (just as it does with phones and tablets already), but the apps that are install-able should run 100%.

This means Chromebooks are going to suddenly become more attractive to the regular consumer. (Telling someone a laptop can “only” browse the web is a scary pitch even though it’s all that most people need.) But it also means a huge opportunity for developers who can suddenly push their apps to dozens of new devices and a completely new form factor. Sure there have been laptop-esque devices that could run Android apps before (Pixel C, anyone?), but this is different. There are already millions of Chromebooks sitting in drawers across the world waiting to be given new life.

Google showed how the laptops now incorporate other features of Android as well, making a Chromebook — at least to me — even more attractive. You’ll be able to use an Android-esque share sheet to move your files, images, and projects between apps. And the laptops will even have Android notifications for the apps you have installed — just like an Android phone. Seeing as there are mobile versions of pretty much every desktop app I use on my Mac, there’s really no reason (besides maybe video editing) for me personally not to go 100% Chromebook.

My top used apps on my Mac — the apps that I use every single day for school, my job, and for entertainment — are Chrome, Tweetbot, Hipchat, Spotify, Wunderlist, Word, and iA Writer. I would say that about 90% of the time I use my laptop I’m in one of these apps. The other 10% of the time is usually iMovie, Photos, and iMessage. Every single one of the apps that fall into the former list are available for Android, and can now (or soon, at least) be installed on almost every $200-$1,300 Chromebook.

That changes a lot of things for me and for the market. I love my retina MacBook Pro, but it sucks a lot of power (it takes a long time to charge and its battery life is just OK), and it’s mostly used for apps that could in theory use very little horsepower. Of course I’ll always need a higher-end laptop for things like video editing, but most people don’t make videos. Suddenly, this thing that was keeping a lot of people from using Chromebooks and resorting to $1,000+ MacBooks is no longer a problem. Even I could probably use a $400 Chromebook as a daily driver now.

And it’s worth remembering, too, that Chromebooks are already very capable without the Play Store. Our own Abner Li uses a Chromebook for his daily driver and rarely feels the need for more.

What’s interesting to me about this is that it will make Chromebook laptops more like Android phones. For a decade laptops have run 2 platforms, Windows or OS X, and only in the last few years have Chromebooks become a serious offering — and even then, it was more like a casual offering for niche(r) use cases. With the Play Store on Chrome OS, Google is making a lot of current and future laptops capable — at least in terms of functionality — on the level of a MacBook or a Surface, without a resource intensive OS sucking lots of processing power and juice.

And this capable OS is going to be on a huge variety of devices. Google likes to tout that there’s an Android phone for everyone (Be together. Not the same.), and making Chromebooks more Android-y is going to have a peripheral effect I think in applying the same ideology. Chromebooks come in all shapes and sizes and configurations, from low-end clunky pieces of plastic with 16GB of onboard storage to all-metal top-of-the-line touchscreen beasts from Google in the form of the Chromebook Pixel. This isn’t new, but the difference in hardware didn’t make much difference until now. Really the experience between those two ends of the spectrum wasn’t that different. It made the expensive end seem ludicrous.

Now, it’s going to matter what kind of Chromebook you buy. If it doesn’t have a front-facing camera, you’re not going to be able to use it to take selfies in the Instagram app. If the Chromebook doesn’t have a touch screen and a decent GPU, it’s going to be really hard to play racing games or Minecraft. The platform is suddenly more mature and buyers have a realistic third option in the world of desktop/laptop operating systems. And like Windows laptops before them, buyers will get to pick what works best for them.

Anyone want to sell me a Chromebook Pixel?

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Avatar for Stephen Hall Stephen Hall

Stephen is Growth Director at 9to5. If you want to get in touch, follow me on Twitter. Or, email at stephen (at) 9to5mac (dot) com, or an encrypted email at hallstephenj (at) protonmail (dot) com.