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

Google Chrome app store
Mark Hachman

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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 App 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), App 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. 

vine app for chrome os

Chrome packaged apps (and presumably Android apps as well) stand alone in their own window, as Vine does.

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.

To date, just a few Android apps—including Evernote, Vine, Duolingo, and Sight Words—have made the jump to Chrome OS. Other “apps,” such as Dropbox, basically point to their respective websites. Woodward said that Google has been working with eBook distributor OverDrive and Amazon’s Kindle on these new ARC apps, and hopes to land more developers as ARC’s awareness grows.

Will Chromebooks suddenly sprout dozens, if not hundreds of Android apps? Probably not overnight. Google faces the same problem as BlackBerry, Tizen and Windows Phone: Although backed by a high-profile developer, the market for Chrome OS remains relatively small, compared to the PC or even Android phones. In certain segments, however—commercial and education—Chromebooks are faring quite well. Last July, for example, NPD said that Chromebooks represented 40 percent of all commercial notebook sales. 

Chromebooks appear to be succeeding based on their capability as efficient, low-cost devices to access the Web. And if they can run Android apps as well, they’ll become a lot more useful.

Correction: The correct name of the technology is the App Runtime for Chrome.

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