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Skeptics question Android on Chromebooks

Gregg Keizer | May 25, 2016
Google's move to let Android apps run in Chrome OS doesn't change the game, analysts assert.

Google's announcement last week that it will let owners of Chromebooks run Android apps was met with skepticism by analysts, who argued that it would not significantly change the market for the inexpensive notebooks that run the browser-based Chrome OS.

Android apps "aren't designed for the keyboard, they're not scaled for the larger screen, so they aren't going to be ideal," said Bob O'Donnell, chief analyst at Technalysis Research. "Most people will find that frustrating."

The combination of Android and Chrome OS will begin rolling out to a limited number of Chromebook models next month, with more slated for support, as the year unwinds, via updates to Chrome OS. Google Play, the Android app marketplace, will be available on Chromebooks, and those apps will run on the devices' minimalist operating system, Google has promised.

Android apps will run unaltered, but developers may also choose to optimize their wares to, for example, offer multiple window sizes -- the apps will appear within those frames -- transfer notifications to Chrome OS, and share files with the Chrome OS file system.

This wasn't Google's first move to bump together Android and Chrome OS: The search giant has been working on multiple fronts since at least late 2014, when it offered a small set of Android apps to Chromebooks.

But analysts were dubious that the availability of hundreds of thousands of Android apps will move the Chromebook needle.

"This gets you out of browser jail and makes the Chromebook a very attractive, simpler-to-use PC than a [Windows] PC," said Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research. "But I'm not sure it's going to change the market."

Others echoed Gottheil.

"This is going to be helpful in some specific cases, but it probably won't dramatically change the fortunes of Chrome OS," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, in an email reply to questions.

Part of the problem is that Chrome OS has been most successful in education -- where the browser-esque operating system is seen as an advantage -- because of low prices that are about a fourth that of the average Mac, and cheaper than all but the most basic Windows-powered PCs.

Adding Android won't shake up the educational market, argued Technalysis' O'Donnell. "People buy Chromebooks because they're looking for the cheapest device," he said. "And for schools that rely on Google Docs and Gmail, [Chromebooks] relieve them of IT management. But adding Android won't help or hurt that."

Google hoped that the addition of Android apps will open doors to Chromebooks, especially those that lead to businesses, where Windows dominates. Its pitch included references to rival Microsoft, whose prime productivity apps -- Word, Excel and PowerPoint -- run on Android but not Chrome OS. (Microsoft Office's Web-based apps have always been available within the browser that is Chrome OS.)


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