Google Explains the Delays in Bringing Android to Chromebook

Posted on May 21, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 29 Comments

Google Explains the Delays in Bringing Android to Chromebook

Google only made a single, brief mention of its efforts to add Android apps to Chromebooks during last week’s Google I/O keynote address. But a Google I/O session went much deeper. And helps to explain what’s taking so long.

You may recall that Google announced one year ago that it would bring Android apps and the Google Play Store to Chromebooks. The plan at the time was for this work to be done by the end of the year. But as 2016 turned into 2017, only a few Chromebooks could run Android apps as part of a pre-release program, leading to questions about Google’s ability to even pull off this feat.

The questions continued in early 2017 when Samsung announced its Chromebook Plus and Chromebook Pro 2-in-1 devices, which were marketed as the first Chromebooks to ship with an integrated pen support. The Chromebook Plus shipped in February, but the Intel-based Pro model was delayed repeatedly—from March to April and then to May—and is now expected to ship in the next few weeks. The reason? Android integration with Chromebook.

Speculation about the cause of these delays was correct in the broad strokes: The work of integrating Androids apps with Chromebook proved to be far more difficult than Google had originally expected.

But now we know a bit more about the problems Google faced. And, in some cases, what they have done to address them.

You can find out more from the Android Apps for Chromebooks and Large Screen Devices session from Google I/O 2017. But here’s a rundown tailored for end users, not programmers.

In many ways, these issues with Android apps on Chromebook parallel the problems Windows 10 has today with legacy desktop applications on high DPI screens: Those apps were written at a time when you could assume screen sizes and resolutions, and they used hard-coded graphics and text that don’t scale well on modern hardware. With Android, many legacy apps make all kinds of assumptions—that they will always be displayed full screen, for example, or in portrait mode—and their creators never imagined that they would run on Chromebooks with hardware keyboards, big landscape displays, and pens.

Getting Android apps updated to support Chromebooks is obviously a priority, and Google has some obvious steps that developers can take to make that happen. (Or to create new Android apps that understand Chromebooks and other large screen devices right from the start.) They should support both portrait and landscape modes, resizable windows, and keyboard, mouse, and, optionally, pen, plus drag and drop.

But the reality is that not all apps will be updated to accommodate these changes, at least not immediately. And so Google has been doing work to improve Chromebook’s support of Android apps in a way that short circuits bad behavior.

For example, Chrome OS will now examine the version of Android that an app has been written for and then handle window management accordingly. An app written for a pre-Android M version, for example, will always be displayed maximized, while Android M-targeted apps can be switched between two fixed sizes: Windowed and fullscreen. But apps written to Android N or later can be freely resized by the user and will thus look and feel more native on Chromebook. In the latter two cases, Chrome OS will display the applicable window controls (Maximize, Minimize).

An Android app, designed for a phone, running on Chromebook. You can grab the window edges with the mouse cursor and resize it.

(Modern Android apps can also specify window size and position, if needed, and Chrome OS will respect that. Too, games, are a special case that are handled in a specific manner to ensure the best experience.)

Windows resizing is one of the biggest hurdles, and in some extreme cases, these kinds of unexpected changes actually cause data loss or crashes. There’s not much Google can do about apps that are this poorly-written, but this speaks to the problem here nicely: This is such a basic feature, but it’s one that many Android apps were not written to expect.

Keyboard navigation is a bit better: Android already uses defaults based on layout to determine which control should have the focus in an app, and developers can, of course, specify that as well. If they do, the app will automatically support keyboard
navigation (using TAB) and other niceties. Apps can also handle keyboard actions, including shortcuts.

Finally, Google has belatedly realized that they need to offer a Chromebook emulator so that developers can test their apps in this environment right from Android Studio. That emulator will be available soon, it says. Developers can find out more here.

All this said, I find Google’s silence about this work during the I/O keynote to be somewhat telling. And it wouldn’t surprise me if this effort of combining Android with Chromebook continued at a slow pace. Further, I’m wondering now if Google will eventually leave behind “legacy” Chromebooks that do not support at least a touch screen because of the amount of work involved.

 

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Comments (29)

29 responses to “Google Explains the Delays in Bringing Android to Chromebook”

  1. Avatar

    Gary Moncrieff

    Given the increased interest in modern progressive web-apps I would hazard a guess that companies would rather go this route than try to update their apps, thoughts?

    Android really is the new Windows, while it has developers mindshare today it will be interesting to see what happens in this area over the next few years.

    • Avatar

      obarthelemy

      In reply to Gary Moncrieff:

      I think the work needed to add a desktop layout to apps is minimal, and probably worth the little bit of work. It should be almost the same as a tablet layout, and Android does have 66% market share in tablets.

      As for web apps vs native, I'm not up to speed on the compromises of either.


      There already ware android desktops, not just TV boxes. I'm in the market for the Vorke Z3, once the reviews are in ^^

    • Avatar

      CajunMoses

      In reply to Gary Moncrieff:

      Writing progressive apps and updating apps to run properly within Chrome OS aren't mutually exclusive alternatives. App updates for Chrome OS will enable them to behave properly on Big Screens. Progressive apps just enable the app to launch while its remaining code continues to install incrementally. And, please, please, please don't compare Android to Windows. It makes Android enthusiasts feel slimy and putrid.

    • Avatar

      skane2600

      In reply to Gary Moncrieff:

      Whose interest? Progressive web-apps are inside baseball to average users. Smart companies will do what makes sense to the bottom line without regard to the latest development craze. But it wouldn't be the first time developers pushed their company into adopting newer approaches they believe will enhance their resumes for future employment opportunities. That's not so say that progressive web apps are never the answer, but rather the decision to adopt them should not be simply based on the buzz.

  2. Avatar

    Bats

    That's it? This is old news. It's so old news, that Paul is the only one in the whole blogsphere reporting this. That's because most people already know this . I even mentioned it on Paul's previous post about this topic. Also, it's not true about Android Apps only in a few Chromebooks right now. There is about a dozen or so Chromebooks that already can be used with Android Apps.

    It is also not true, this statement "Google has belatedly realized that they need to offer a Chromebook emulator so that developers can test their apps in this environment right from Android Studio." Why is it not true? Because Android Apps can be used on Chromebooks now. It's just that Google's vision of Android on Chromebook got more ambitious, since the announcement from last year. Late last year, there was already discussion about this topic from Techspot, Android Central, BGR and others about the portrait/landscape issue. Not only that, but I even mentioned last week or the week before on Paul's other post (I think it was regarding Samsung Chromebook). LOL....even I knew it. Why Paul is the only one reporting this as new news, is beyond me. Around that time, there was even talk about "Andromeda" OS. Again, this is all OLD NEWS.

    WOW....talk about the "alternative facts." (LOL)

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    I like this"In many ways, these issues with Android apps on Chromebook parallel the problems Windows 10 has today with legacy desktop applications on high DPI screens with techniedges: Those apps were written at a time when you could assume screen sizes and resolutions, and they used hard-coded graphics and text that don’t scale well on modern hardware. With Android, many legacy apps make all kinds of assumptions—that they will always be displayed full screen, for example, or in portrait mode—and their creators never imagined that they would run on Chromebooks with hardware keyboards, big landscape displays, and pens."

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  12. Avatar

    Jeff Jones

    Right after Google announced Android on ChromeOS last year I wrote a particular game developer and asked if they had any plans to add keyboard shortcuts to their game, in anticipation of Android on Chromebooks. They said they would rather concentrate on adding new content to the game.

    I wonder how many other developers have the same mindset?

    Regarding the delay for legacy Chromebooks, I was hoping Google was working on a keyboard mapping overlay similar to what we see in the Bluestacks and MEmu virtual machines. For gaming at least, this works pretty well.

  13. Avatar

    skane2600

    Applications are written for the platform they were designed for at that time. Developers aren't responsible for anticipating possible future changes that may or may not be made unilaterally by an OS vendor.


    The entity that creates the breaking change is the one responsible for the poor performance.

  14. Avatar

    ChristopherCollins

    I dug into this over the past week. From what I have gathered through the various Android sources on the web, the Pro was delayed because of app issues on the Intel processor.


    The Plus model running on the OP1/Rocketchip seems to be doing well.


    I found some some articles on the OP1 and Googles vision for that chip line. A feature is that it 'runs Android apps natively'. That leads me to believe there was some level of and emulation problem on the Intel/Pro version of the Samsung machine.


    It was actually some interesting reading that sparked a bit more interest into where Google is going with Chrome OS.

  15. Avatar

    red.radar

    It would seem both Google and Microsoft are trying to dominate personal computing across cloud, mobile and desktop but are coming from different beachfronts. Microsoft is trying to adapt a desktop OS for mobile and live on top of everything. Google seems to be trying to take a mobile OS and adapt for desktop.


    Interesting to see both have same goal but there journeys are different.

  16. Avatar

    Darmok N Jalad

    What's funny is that about 5 years ago, there was already a high-DPI 2-n-1 Android device, the ASUS TF700T (the TF300 was its low-res brother). I had one, and it was a pretty nifty device. I liked having the keyboard and touchpad for certain tasks. The problem was running Googles earliest attempts at a tablet OS, and the device was powered by a higher-clocked version of Tegra 3 which not only wasn't powerful enough, but it made the device glitchy. Still, the concept has been around a while. For whatever reason, the idea has never taken off, and developers still don't really target large screens on Android. I could see why Google would be running into problems if they are trying to support all apps. I just figured those that were so outdated would get cut due to poor user experience.

    • Avatar

      obarthelemy

      In reply to Darmok N Jalad:

      That's a very strong overgeneralization. Some - I'd say enough, at least for my own use case, Android apps are perfectly optimized for tablets: browser, mail, newsreaders, games, Office (MS or other), ...

      I'm sure some apps aren't well optimized for Android tablets. Most that matter are.

  17. Avatar

    wunderbar

    I'm typing this on the Chromebook Plus, and this is a device I really like. The Android stuff, I barely use it. There are a couple of places where I use it to fill a hole in capability, but in the vast majority of cases the website is simply better than the android app on this type of device.


    I am interested in the future of how Android Apps on Chrome OS will work, but I'm not sure if it'll actually take off like people think.

    • Avatar

      ChristopherCollins

      In reply to wunderbar:

      I am seriously considering getting that device... Seeing it is a big reason I have been researching ChromeOS developments.


      I use an older Toshiba Chromebook 2 (2015/Celeron) for my Chromebook duties. I was worried that the Plus might be too slow for me since it's Octane score is about half of what I already have. I know Octane is not 'everything' and reading that the OP1 is 'blessed' by Google as being optimized is somewhat relieving.


      How has your experience been? I rarely have more than 5-7 tabs open at once and use TeamViewer's extension a good bit.


      Your input would be greatly appreciated. I am torn on waiting for the Pro on the 28th.


      • Avatar

        shapiro

        In reply to ChristopherCollins:

        Have one. Certainly less flimsy than the Toshiba. I would prefer a backlit keyboard, of course, but the tradeoff gets me long battery life and that gorgeous display. Nothing unexpected in software performance (tho I don't know what TeamViewer is). If you know Chromebooks - and you seem to - you should be happy.


        My take on the speed situation for your use case is that you're more likely to be hampered by internet throughput than by processor speed.

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