Google Pixelbook: When is Chrome OS getting real Android apps so I can do real work?

Google is turning up the heat on its thin client OS with a new flagship notebook device. So, when can I do real work with it?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Video: Google shows new Pixel Pen for Pixelbook

Google has released a phalanx of new hardware devices, including new smart speakers, new smartphones, and yes, an updated version of its super premium Pixel laptop, which is now called the Pixelbook.

The hardware itself seems much like Microsoft's Surface Laptop, which is a good thing. The price point is also very similar, at $999. If it was a fully functional Windows 10 or even Linux desktop device, I'd say that was a compelling buy. The problem is it runs Chrome OS.

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Look, I like Chrome OS. I've bought several of the devices for family members, because I think it is a good solution for users that have almost entirely web-driven application workloads, and it is highly resistant to malware and misconfiguration.

The zero-config nature of Chrome OS makes it ideal for use-case scenarios where the environment the device is used in is hostile or the end-user has a limited set of apps and services that they use.

However, I could never use Chrome OS as-is as my primary device work device let alone primary recreational device, which Windows 10 and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro serve as today.

There are definitely ways to work around Chrome OS limitations, such as with Citrix and cloud-based apps. But I don't have a service provider for legacy Windows application hosting, and for my purposes, that would be overkill.

Chrome OS does have some limited Android application functionality with the built-in Google Play Store, but you do not have access to the complete library of Android apps, because Chrome OS does not support all the API levels of Android and the legacy applications written for Android aren't necessarily updated to API levels the runtime environment in Chrome OS can use.

So, it's kind of a chicken-and-the-egg issue. Do you fix the apps to support the runtime, or do you fix the runtime environment to support the apps?

The easy answer to this question is to incorporate the subset of zero configuration functionality present in Chrome OS into the next generation of Android and decide that, going forward, the Pixelbook and devices like it will run Android and Chrome OS dies off.

After all, they are both Linux-based and can share libraries and ultimately subsystems. But that's a highly simplistic way of looking at the problem, because a lot of rationalization has to occur to converge the two systems.

Not all the problems are Chrome OS related -- some of this has to do with the way Android itself evolved, starting out as a smartphone OS. It was never designed to run on tablets or work as a desktop OS with a mouse pointer and application windowing. Chrome OS is also not touchscreen-optimized, at least not yet.

Read also: Google announces Pixelbook laptop with Assistant, 4-in-1 design | Google's $1,000 Pixelbook is what Apple's MacBook should be | Closer look at Google's Pixelbook

Android did eventually get tablet support, in version 3 and 4. We are now on version 8. However, to this day, most Android apps are still not tablet-optimized. They are just smartphone apps that get blown up to scale -- and they look and work awful like that. If they were written specifically for Android 7 and 8, they'd look great and run nicely, but there aren't many of those. Even Google has apps that aren't well-optimized yet.

Do you know whose Android apps are really well optimized for Android in tablet mode? Microsoft's.

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I don't see how Google is going to resolve these issues without throwing babies out with the bathwater. And even so, there's no guarantee of success here. Microsoft attempted to rationalize its mobile and desktop OS, and in the process, Windows 10 Mobile was created. It accomplished the technical goal of unifying the APIs for Windows, but nobody at the end of the day actually wanted Windows Phones.

Now, Microsoft writes apps for Android and iOS. And they are damn good.

Do people really want laptops that run refactored Android apps? I think that is a question we need to answer before Google undertakes a significant engineering level of effort with questionable return.

Personally, I think I would use an Android laptop as my travel device if I could get the same zero-config functionality as Chrome OS, and it ran all the apps I use on my Android phones, scaled perfectly to run in either tablet mode or as a desktop app. But it would also need perfect touch support, and I would want application windowing to work perfectly, as well.

That's a tall order. Is Google willing to undergo a Manhattan project like Microsoft did with Windows 10 to accomplish that? I don't know.

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