What is Chrome OS, anyway? With the recent announcement that the Google Play Store and the entire universe of Android apps will come to Chromebooks, that’s a really good question. It’s certainly not just a web browser anymore.
What Chrome OS was supposed to be
Time travel back to 2009 and look at Google’s Chrome OS announcement. It’s all about the web as a neutral application platform for every operating system.
“For application developers, the web is the platform. All web-based applications will automatically work and new applications can be written using your favorite web technologies. And of course, these apps will run not only on Google Chrome OS, but on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac, and Linux, thereby giving developers the largest user base of any platform.”
That was the original idea. Chrome OS wasn’t really its own platform. Any standards-based web application would work fine on Chrome OS, the Chrome browser on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and other standards-based browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari.
But the web wasn’t good enough for Chrome OS
That was great! But there was a problem. Users needed more than just a normal browser for some things. The web just wasn’t powerful enough. While Google continued to add web technologies for developers to the Chrome browser itself, Google also worked on competing application platforms.
Chrome apps—originally “packaged apps”—were one of them. Packaged apps use web technologies, but are packaged into downloadable bundles that users had to retrieve from the Chrome Web Store. Google’s push for packaged apps undermined the “the web is the platform message.” Google informed developers to “remember that Chrome Apps extend your development capacity beyond what you can do with traditional web apps,” although these apps can only work in Chrome and not other web browsers. In particular, these apps can directly access the file system and hardware features like USB and Bluetooth that normal web applications can’t.
Google also pushed Native Client. There was once a version of the PC game Bastion made with Native Client that worked in Chrome, but it seems it’s now been removed from the Chrome Web Store. Native Client has no real links to web technologies at all—it’s a sandbox for safely running code written in the C or C++ programming languages in a browser. As Google’s Native Client website puts it, “Native Client brings the performance and low-level control of native code to modern web browsers, without sacrificing the security and portability of the web.” But Native Client only works in Google Chrome.
Both of these technologies largely failed to take off. Even Google itself only released a handful of Chrome apps. The most popular Google services, such as Gmail and Google Calendar, never had packaged apps. Even other development teams in Google itself weren’t onboard with the Chrome OS team’s plans.
“We’ve been encouraged by this growth, but our users have often told us that they would like to do even more with their Chromebooks—run more apps, use Office files more easily, connect with a variety of apps, and do more when they’re offline.”
Of course, this comes nearly seven years after Chrome OS was first announced. Users would certainly like to have a larger number of apps available, do more offline, and work with Office files more easily, sure. But that doesn’t require Android apps. If the web, Chrome apps, or Native Client apps had become capable enough, users wouldn’t need Android apps to do these things.
Android apps will make Chromebooks more capable and powerful, and that’s great for Chrome OS users. But Chrome OS is becoming more of a Google platform than a neutral platform for open web standards. The web is still powerful and useful for many things, but it’s evidently not powerful enough.
Android is outgrowing the mobile web, too
On the mobile side, Firefox OS—which also relied on web apps instead of native apps—also failed on smartphones. Yes, Mozilla was too late to the party with Firefox OS. But the original Firefox OS phones, which were targeted at the low end, were slow compared to similarly priced Android phones that were also more capable. The web couldn’t stand up to Android there, either.
Android devices already want to rely on the web less. Android Instant Apps, announced at Google I/O, will have Android apps show up in the Google search results on Android devices. You’ll be able to quickly find and open an app without installing it—just like a webpage. But again, this relies on Android technologies and will only work on the Android platform. Google is nudging developers away from neutral websites that work on all platforms and toward an Android ecosystem.