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Google's Android Runtime for Chrome to bring native Android apps to Chromebooks

Mark Hachman | April 1, 2015
Think of App Runtime for Chrome as a powered-up version of Google's packaged apps for Chrome OS. First up: the awesome VLC video app.

Google Chrome app store

If you begin to see a deluge of pure Android apps suddenly appear in the Chrome Web Store for Chromebooks, there's a reason: Google has gone mainstream with Android Runtime for Chrome (ARC), the company's bid to lure uber-apps like VLC to the Chrome OS platform.

Think of ARC as a complement to the so-called "Chrome apps" or "packaged apps" that debuted in 2013. But while a packaged app might be just a glorified Web app, Google employees said an app written with ARC is more like a native port of an Android app.

"Basically, we created the project to fill in some of the app gap, which has always been sort of the ding on Chromebooks," said Josh Woodward, a product manager at Google. "As more and more Android tablets have come into the market, there have been many more nice, full-screen-sized apps. So we thought--this is kind of crazy--what if we could run an unmodified APK file, an Android app, on Chrome OS?"

When running on Chrome OS, the ARC app "thinks" that it's running on an Android tablet or phone. But the ARC layer simply intercepts a call to an Android notification, for example, and replaces it with the corresponding Chrome OS command. Google launched ARC last year as a beta, and the project remains in beta--what with Google being Google. But ARC is now being more widely marketed instead of being seeded to developers on a select, one-by-one basis.

While Chrome packaged apps are geared toward developers who work with Web technologies (HTML, JavaScript and CSS), Android Runtime for Chrome is targeted at Android developers who run native code, Woodward said. 

Users won't need to worry about which apps are which--they'll simply appear in the Chrome app store, as, well, apps. But if a lot of Android developers sign on to port their code, the number of apps you can run on your Chromebook could grow exponentially. "That's the hope," Woodward said. 

VLC finally coming to Chrome OS
One app that Chromebook users should welcome enthusiastically is VLC, the video-player app that promises to play just about every video file format around. Chrome OS plays just a small handful of video files natively, so VLC will be a nice addition to the Chromebook repertoire. VLC will probably appear in the Chrome OS app store in a couple of weeks, Woodward said.

Google showed us an early preview of the VLC  app, and it ran without problems on new low-cost Chromebooks built on chips manufactured by Rockchip. "We sent over the tools for them and said, 'Try it,' and it was like, 'This is totally amazing!" Woodward said.


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