Google Play on Chromebooks could spell the end for dirty Windows

What a relief it is to report that Windows 10 isn’t a complete dog of an operating system, right? Boy did we worry after the ridiculous offerings of Windows 8. Rightly so, in my eyes. I hated Windows 8 and its silly touch-centric tiles, it’s lack of a start menu when first released and well, I just didn’t like such a vast change from the look and feel of Windows 7 that I was so accustomed to. Windows 10 appeased me in pretty much every way. It felt to me like Windows 7 had been given a modern make over, which is exactly what I (and i suspect many others) wanted. Whilst a not insignificant number of people were moving to OS X during the dark days of Windows 8, I felt that Windows 10 would stop the rot when it came to Microsoft losing traction in the home market. To a degree it did, but there is one area I feel that Windows 10 is a let down. That area is low-end, cheap laptops.

Go ahead and run Windows 10 on the latest Dell XPS 13 or Asus Zenbook, and you will most probably come away with the feeling that Windows 10 runs like a dream, and on these machines it really does. Where it lets itself down is on very low end machines. These are the machines your mum and dad buy, and complain to you about how slow it boots up and ask, “Why isn’t Word opening!?!?” as they click away at the icon like a lab rat on amphetamines, while simultaneously running a virus scan, and having 20 tabs open on chrome. They have spent £200 and expect the same performance and snappiness that they now see on their Ipad. This is when I would generally ask if they spend most of the time at their computer online? If the answer was yes, I would always recommend a Chromebook.

Now, for every fan of the Chromebook, there is another person yelling “But it’s just a browser! You cant do anything meaningful with it!” This statement is both true and false. Chrome OS is just a web browser, but most of the work people do these days is easily done using a cloud solution, such as that seen on Chromebooks, and they even have some nuances that make them more useful than either Windows or OS X, such as the fact you can log into any Chromebook, and if you happen to use Google Docs, you have all your files and bookmarks at your fingertips. Windows has OneDrive, but this is not as intuitive as Google’s offering and is generally aimed at the corporate world. Apple’s venture in this department is janky to say the least. My experience with Icloud has been full of syncing issues and I think even the most hardened of Apple fans would admit this is not exactly Apple’s forte. Most Apple users seem happy to use Box or Dropbox for their cloud syncing needs. Now, the criticism of Chrome OS “just being a browser” is valid, but is becoming less and less of an issue every day. Most of the big app makers have a web version available, such as Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Whilst they may not be as powerful as the full applications, they are more than enough to create, edit, and share documents. This alone makes the Chromebook a great ‘second’ computer to use on the go. However, what makes the Chromebook even better now, and perhaps the only machine some people will need in 2017? The Google Play store is coming to Chromebooks this year and its going to shake things up in a big way.

With the Google Play store, Chromebooks that fit the criteria will have access to all the apps that you can get on Android phones and tablets (disregarding phone-only apps, such as those that rely on a phone number). Including the impressively powerful versions of Word and Excel that are more than enough for the average user. With these apps also comes the ability to work offline, albeit in a somewhat limited fashion, but nowhere near as limited as Chrome on its own. It also allows you to have a plethora of entertainment apps, productivity apps, and any other app that you find useful on your phone or tablet. There is one giant caveat to this at the moment though. The whole Play Store on Chromebooks, is basically in beta. And not the sort of beta you just find annoying once every few days, its the sort of beta that crashes on you every single day. As such, I don’t think I can recommend this as a full solution to all your laptop needs right now, but I am willing to bet my bottom dollar I will be doing just that in the next couple of years. Obviously this will rely heavily on app developers re-jiggering their apps to work well on Chromebooks, but considering most of the new Chromebooks releasing this year will have to be a certain spec to even have the Play Store installed, and more importantly, most manufacturers have opted to adhere to these specs, I fully expect to see app developers seeing this push by Google and responding to it.

When this does happen, and if it works well, it may make you wonder what space there will be left for Microsoft in the low end PC market that they have dominated for so many years. Not that it will be that much of a problem for them, as they seem to be pivoting to become more of a ‘services-based’ company anyway but the fact that Windows 10 Cloud was recently announced, you would be forgiven for thinking Microsoft are now taking the Chromebook threat seriously. Details are quite sketchy at the moment regarding Windows 10 Cloud, but by all accounts it looks remarkably similar in structure to Chrome OS. Whether it will work as seamlessly as Google’s service is yet to been seen but no doubt we will get to test it out around April this year.

The other issue that both these cloud based services will need to figure out is how they go about letting the public know that they don’t need a full blown PC OS anymore. Whilst the more knowledgeable of you may know that a Chromebook would be a great choice for mum, your mum probably has other ideas. After all, she has been told for many years that Windows or OS X were the only options for her home computing needs. Her generation are notoriously stubborn when it comes to change, especially when they have been burned before with massive changes (*cough* Windows 8), and are understandably reluctant to change yet again. Because of this, Google need to make sure the message is loud and clear, Chrome OS is all you need. To do this, expect to see quite a big advertising push for the Chrome and Google Play integration this summer.

There is, however, a slight cloud (*sigh*) hanging over the Play Store’s inclusion on Chrome OS, and that is the fact that many people in the Google camp are making noises in regards to a completely new OS that merges Chrome and Android. Code-named Andromeda, the difference between this new OS and what we are seeing released this year is hard to fathom, but none the less, the chattering about this new merger doesn’t seem to be going away. Maybe the current iteration we are just getting our hands on now is purely to test the water and gauge interest, with a brand new, built from scratch, collaboration between the Chrome and Android teams coming in a few years. Building a new OS from scratch can potentially lead to a much smoother experience than just forcing 2 separate entities together, smoothing any rough edges, and hoping for the best. Other voices in the Google camp seem to be suggesting that rather than Android being folded into Chrome, or vice versa, that both these OS’es will be folded into Andromeda. Some are also saying that Andromeda is dead in the water and a new system called Fuchsia is where Google in hedging its bets.

To be fair, all these options seem to amount to rather similar things for the end user. If Google manage to get this right, we could be looking at the perfect computer for the average person. Obviously, this is quite a subjective view, but when I talk about the average user, I’m talking about someone who mainly web browses, checks email, Facebook, the odd spreadsheet, and writes the occasional letter. For this, all you would need is an Andromeda / Fuchsia / Chrome OS with Google Play, device. A cheap Windows PC won’t give you the same level of performance or simplicity. An Apple Mac or IOS device simply wont be cheap enough. And Linux, well….As lovely as Linux is, I don’t see Ubuntu making too many moves in the real world for ‘normal’ people. “But Android is Linux!!” Yes, well done you for pointing that out, but now is not the time to get into that.

I have one little issue with Google and Chromebooks. Where are the beefy machines!?! Buying a £200 Chromebook may give you a smoother ride than a £200 Windows machine but when Google Apps are also running on these laptops, 2 and 4 GB of RAM variants just aren’t going to cut the mustard. In the last few years, the only offerings we have had, are hundreds of very low end 2GB models, or the crazy expensive Google Chromebook Pixel, which was a beast of a machine, with an equally beastly price tag. The Pixel and Pixel 2 are also no longer produced and don’t look likely to be getting a successor anytime soon. Samsung are set to release some so-called mid-ranged Chromebooks very soon, but these also only have 4GB of RAM which worries me in regards to the integration of Google Play. While their chipsets are definitely an improvement on the bottom rung Chromebooks, the RAM is a worry. 4GB is fine for most people on Chrome OS, but will it be enough to smoothly run 10 Chrome tabs and 2 Android apps simultaneously? I’m not so sure. I’m looking forward to seeing some 8GB models being released at some point in the future, as this seems to be the sweet spot for speed and price.

Lastly, the thing that we are all really waiting for, is down to app developers. If we can get strong, competent versions of photo editing, video editing, and productivity apps on Chrome and Android, then there is very little you won’t be able to do in the Google ecosystem. Adobe have recently gone on record as saying they want their mobile apps to mirror the power you get from their desktop applications. If they manage to do this in the coming years, then Chrome OS, or Android, or Andromeda, or Fuchsia, or whatever the hell they are going to call it, will be a very interesting alternative to Microsoft and Apple. If the rumours live up to expectation, then we are in for a very exciting couple of years.