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Skeptics question Android on Chromebooks

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.)

"While the two million businesses already using Google Apps for Work can view and edit Microsoft Word documents, some may prefer to use Microsoft's Office software," wrote Rajen Sheth, senior director of Android and Chrome for Work, in a post to a company blog last week. "That's possible on a Chromebook by installing the Android version of Microsoft Word, for example. And those who supplement Google Hangout meetings with Skype can do so on a Chromebook by using Skype for Android."

Jackdaw's Dawson contended that the Android app move would improve Chromebooks' chances of landing on an office desk. "The biggest boon ... is enterprise apps, which had hitherto made it to Android but not to Chrome OS," said Dawson in an analysis published on Tech.pinions last week (subscription required). "Google is hoping that this will help to break down additional barriers to driving enterprise adoption of Chrome OS, especially among knowledge workers heavily dependent on these more specialized apps."

Technology Business Research's Gottheil also thought Google was onto something. "The vast majority of [business] users don't need all the capabilities of a Windows PC," he said. "So Chromebooks would lower the TCO" (total cost of ownership).

But Technalysis' O'Donnell remained unconvinced, saying that Chromebooks were "not compelling" in the enterprise because of that market's reliance on Windows. "It makes some degree of sense, but it's not compelling," O'Donnell said of Android on Chrome OS. "If I'm an enterprise, I'm still going to manage Windows machines, still use customized Windows apps. And enterprise is less price-sensitive than education, so it's much more of a stretch" to say Chromebooks with Android will be popular in corporate settings.

Neither Android or Apple's iOS has managed to generate anything close to the depth and breadth of enterprise applications that Windows offers, O'Donnell continued, even with highly publicized efforts like Apple's partnerships with the likes of IBM and SAP.

Bringing software from one operating system to another has historically been relegated to stopgap measures -- Apple's emulation of older Mac apps during its transition from PowerPC processors to those from Intel comes to mind -- or has been reluctantly adopted as an act of last resort.

Even Apple's maneuver in 2010 that let iPhone apps run on the then-new iPad -- the two device families both ran iOS -- without modification, and thus at less-than-optimal screen size, was met with resistance. Likewise, virtualization software, which lets, for instance, a Mac run Windows and that OS's applications, has been adopted by only a very small pool of users.

"There will be work required by [Android app] developers," said O'Donnell, if the Chrome OS + Android strategy is to bear fruit. "There are lots of questions about how much work is required, and whether there is a payoff."

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