Technophile

ChromeOS takes aim at tablets, laptops

Visvaksen P | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on July 20, 2016

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Android apps could take Google’s browser based operating system to a whole new level in the portable computing space

Google’s recent decision to port the Play Store to ChromeOS devices could result in a drastic shakeup of the mobile computing market.

Users of the affordable, browser-centric Chromebook line of laptops will soon be able to choose from a catalogue of over 2 million apps. The company has announced a gradual rollout with three devices currently supported and a huge swathe of other models set to be added to that list by the middle of next year.

Just as the arrival of a native app ecosystem propelled the original iPhone onto the pedestal, Android apps could give Chrome devices the edge over traditional laptops, tablets and new-fangled hybrids.

Future of mobility

The desktop computer, for all intents and purposes outside of an office cubicle, is dead. It has been clear for a while now that the future of computing is mobile. That much is for sure. The multi-billion dollar question that remains is the nature (and the maker) of the hardware and the software that will come to define this future.

Smartphones, having gone through the initial period of rapid iteration have evolved into 5-inch rectangular slabs that run on either Android or iOS. Despite how powerful they have become, smartphones in their current form are incapable of filling the void left by the death of the desktop.

False dawn

That was supposed to be the job of the tablet. And yet tablet sales are in freefall worldwide with the only successful model, the iPad, largely propped up by the logo on its back. While they’re great for entertainment, users just don’t seem to want to use them to deal with lengthy word documents or spreadsheets.

Microsoft and its army of OEM partners rushed into the breach with a solution – detachable keyboards. And the 2-in-1 was born. But in the brave new world of mobile computers, Windows is what its rivals were back in the desktop days – alone and friendless. Hamstrung by a lack of apps, the Windows hybrid lap-tabs haven’t reached their full potential.

Meanwhile, Apple has started selling keyboards too. But the addition of an expensive accessory to an already heavy bill means that iPad productivity package remains restricted to the CEO-class and the Apple enthusiasts.

The browser takes over

Enter Google, with its browser-as-operating-system concept. By turning the most used part of the OS into the entire OS, ChromeOS successfully eliminated the steep learning curve that prevents most people from trying a new ecosystem. Its inherent minimalism also ensured that Chrome devices were cheap, fast and exceedingly simple to use.

However, the emphasis on the browser also meant that Chromebooks were overwhelmingly reliant on a network connection in order to be useful. And while cloud computing has come a long way in the recent past, there are still large gaps that require native apps to surmount.

Both of these issues, which had relegated Chrome devices to a niche, will now be resolved with the arrival of the Play Store.

Shared heritage

The core functionality which makes this move a no-brainer is the shared Linux roots of both Android and ChromeOS. Indeed, ChromeOS has had some form of Android app compatibility for a while now through tools like the ARC (Android Runtime for Chrome) Welder. But what Google is promising is the assurance of a system that just works.

It is currently still very much a work in progress, with reports indicating that even on the officially supported devices, some apps do not always function as expected. Google is currently in the process of testing and whitelisting apps certified to run on ChromeOS.

Crucially though, developers will not need to port individual apps since they will be able to run just like they do on Android devices thanks to Google’s NaCl (Native Client) environment.

Ideal middle ground

What this essentially means is that ChromeOS is immediately compatible with official, offline versions of Microsoft’s Office suite, a massive library of games and a number of other app-only services.

While a Windows or Mac laptop can still do a lot for an advanced user that a Chromebook can’t, for the vast majority of casual users in the market for a portable computer there is now a viable third choice that can handle their entertainment and productivity needs far better than any tablet.

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Published on July 20, 2016
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