The hottest tech-show ticket these days is Google I/O. In the just-finished 2017 conference, Google announced lots of great stuff, including a lightweight version of Android, Android Go; a first look at the next version of Android, Android O; and a major upgrade to Google Home. One thing that was noticeably missing, however: big news about Android apps on Chrome OS.
At last year’s Google I/O, Android on Chrome OS was the big news. To quote Computerworld’s own Android expert, J.R. Raphael, “It isn’t about a one-or-the-other combining of the two platforms but rather a convergence that brings the best elements of each platform into the other — and increasingly makes the two operating systems feel more consistent and connected.”
I thought it was great news too. I had seen the marriage of Android and Chrome OS coming before Google officially announced it. Not quite a year ago, I was running Android apps on two of my Chromebooks: an Asus Chromebook Flip and my beloved 2015 Chromebook Pixel. I was dead certain that by now Android and Chrome OS would be well into their honeymoon, making Microsoft worried.
Well, I was right about the second part. Microsoft is trying to con people into buying a cut-down, tightly controlled version of Windows 10, dubbed Windows 10 S.
But I was wrong about the first part. Android and Chrome OS aren’t splitsville, but they may need counseling.
True, the ability to run Android applications on Chromebooks is more common now. There are all of six — count ’em, six — Chromebooks that can run Android apps now. This is not what I had expected.
What I had expected was that all new Chromebooks would support Android by now. Have I mentioned I was wrong?
Even when you can run Android programs on Chromebooks, they often don’t run all that well. Even on my Pixel, which — with a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD — is still the fastest Chromebook out there, many applications are laggy. Others, such as Facebook, failed to load. Heck, even Google’s own Gmail app crashed when I tried to attach a file to it. Some programs, such as Google Docs, ran fine, but they looked like — well, what they are: Android phone apps trying and failing to make use of a desktop-size screen.
Why is this happening? True, there’s a lot of open source behind both operating systems, but Google is calling the shots. And besides, both are based on Linux. This shouldn’t be that hard.
Except, it turns out, it is. Specifically, as shown in the Google I/O presentation “Android Apps for Chromebooks and Large Screen Devices,” most Android programs were hard-coded for tablet and smartphone displays. These do not — oh, brother, do they not — work and play well with laptop-sized screens.
There are ways to handle screen resizing automatically, but they’re difficult to implement. In fact, when you’re building an app to be Chromebook-friendly, there are ways to completely lose track of where the heck your display is supposed to show up on the screen.
Now, you might wonder, Why aren’t the app developers building this into their programs in Android Studio, Google’s official integrated development environment (IDE) for Android? The answer: There’s no Chromebook emulator in Android Studio. One is coming, but the Android Studio Chromebook emulator is still in early beta.
What this tells me is that Google hasn’t done the foundational work needed to get Android apps running well on Chrome OS. A great idea isn’t enough. You need to follow through with the hard work needed to make the idea reality.
So get on with it, Google. You’ve blown it so far, but there’s still time to make Android on Chrome OS work. I, and a lot of your users, are waiting.