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The messy Googlefication of the PC

Rival efforts by both Microsoft and Google to bring Android apps to Windows, as well as Google's pitch to "upgrade" PCs from Windows to Chrome OS, are awkwardly increasing Google's influence on the PC.
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Written by Ross Rubin, Contributing Writer on

We will never know how a thriving app ecosystem on Windows 10 Mobile might have filled the hole of touch-first native Windows apps on the desktop. However, the company's acceptance of Android on mobile is on the brink of progress, with the company steadily cracking open the door further to Android apps running on Windows 11. That move preceded more recent announcements by Google that it would bring Google Play Games to both Windows 10 and 11. As for Google's other operating system, the company recently rolled out the first public preview of Chrome OS Flex, its update to Neverware's body-snatching CloudReady OS that turned PCs and Macs into Chromebooks.

All of these initiatives offer significant limitations. For example, Microsoft's Android efforts include the constrained selection of Amazon's app store that has been relegated to the company's Fire tablets, not the de facto Google Play option familiar to over a billion users. Google will also deprive Windows users of many of its own signature apps by limiting its initial efforts to games. It's hard to see how both Microsoft and Google could dive into making Android apps available for Windows with wildly popular Android apps such as Gmail, YouTube, and the Google Workspace suite not making the journey, but such is the case. 

That the two companies are pursuing their own initiatives dampens the odds that Google Play will join the Amazon Appstore as a choice for Microsoft's approach despite Microsoft's stated desire to provide multiple Android app store options. Google promoting Android apps on Windows carries exponentially more promotion weight than today's options such as Bluestacks (which supports Google Play apps beyond games) can deliver, and Google's knowledge of the apps installed on Android phones could lead them to promote those apps' Windows availability. On the other hand, having Google Play available through Microsoft's Windows Subsystem for Android would allow tighter integration into the setup process. Let's hope the rival approaches don't lead to the kind of digital goading we experience in the turf war between the Edge and Chrome browsers. (Maybe they can bond more over Microsoft removing more apps from Google Play on Chrome OS.)

As for Chrome OS Flex, Google's promotion of it to business customers (It is hosted on the Chrome Enterprise portal) represents an upgraded positioning versus that of CloudReady. It represents return fire in the battle for business customers after Microsoft finally unveiled an alternative for those in Chrome OS's education stronghold in Windows 11 SE. (While Chrome OS Flex will presumably be available to anyone via download as CloudReady has been, Windows 11 SE is available only through the education channel.) Google plays up Chrome OS's manageability and security as an upgrade versus its operation on low-end hardware; for many consumers, CloudReady was the final lap of the PC lifecycle. Of course, as Flex progresses and offers such advantages as being on the same upgrade cycle as Chrome OS proper, having it run on more powerful business-focused PCs should provide a better user experience.

While these limitations and competitive approaches may slow the impact, the cumulative effect of a growing Android and Chrome OS presence on Windows can only bolster Google's influence on the platform; for example, the large-screen features introduced in Android 12L would improve the experience of Android apps on Windows devices. While this does little to calm the nerves of those who have accused Microsoft of lowering its prioritization of Windows, it's consistent with the message of openness that Microsoft played up in its introduction of Windows 11 and has recently revisited in the app store principles it has shared following the launch of its takeover bid for Activision Blizzard. While Microsoft may not be encouraging Google's move to bring Android games to Windows, Google would never be able to launch such a store on, say, the iPad (a hypothetical in that there would be no case for doing so).

In contrast, by the end of this year, Windows 11 users will be able to choose from at least two Android-based app stores (in addition to sideloading support) and should be able to continue using many of their apps years in the future when the current version of Windows becomes too much for their aging architectures to bear.

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