What everyone's missing about Google Play and Chrome OS

Google's full catalog of Android apps appears to be coming to Chrome OS -- but the real story is something far more significant.

Google Play Store Chrome OS Android Apps

Brrrrrrrrrrrreaking news, gang: The Google Play Store may be coming soon to a Chromebook near you!

Hang on, though -- because interesting as that may seem, it's actually not the real story here. (Yup: Another "missing the forest for the trees" situation. We've sure had a lot of those lately, haven't we?)

Let's recap the basics first: Some eagle-eyed Redditors reported an interesting little option popping up on their Chromebooks over the weekend. The prompt -- which appears to be limited to devices running the "experimental" developer channel of the software -- seems to promote the full store of Android apps being readily available for use on Chrome OS.

"Choose from over a million apps and games on Google Play to install and use," the text from one apparent screenshot proclaims.

The function doesn't actually work yet, but our code-snooping sleuths uncovered evidence in the Chrome OS source that corroborates it with discussion of an "opt-in dialog for Android apps."

Now, should any of this come as a surprise? Not in the least. If you've been paying attention to Chrome OS for a while, you know that Google's been experimenting with making Android apps available on the platform for a couple of years now. While the selection of available apps has thus far been carefully curated and limited in scope, it's been clear from the get-go that this has all been a cautious first step toward a much broader goal.

The real story revolves around Google's ultimate ambition with Chrome OS -- and Android apps are but one piece of that puzzle.

Chrome OS + Android = ?

We've been hearing the question of whether Google will somehow "merge" Chrome OS and Android for ages. The thread picked up steam last fall when The Wall Street Journal reported that Google planned to "fold" Chrome OS into Android, indicating that Android had won the "battle" of the two operating systems and emerged as the victor in a one-or-the-other-style showdown.

Google immediately countered the report. Hiroshi Lockheimer, the company's chief of Android, Chrome OS, and Chromecast, posted a blog in which he emphatically said that "Chrome OS is here to stay":

Over the last few days, there’s been some confusion about the future of Chrome OS and Chromebooks based on speculation that Chrome OS will be folded into Android. While we’ve been working on ways to bring together the best of both operating systems, there's no plan to phase out Chrome OS.

But questions lingered, and many observers thought Lockheimer's remarks were mere word games that didn't directly deny anything.

I had a chance to ask Lockheimer about it myself during our recent one-on-one chat for my podcast. He again emphasized that the two platforms serve different types of use cases and that it doesn't have to be a one-or-the-other knockout situation.

[Full podcast: A chat with Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer]

"It's definitely not binary," he told me. "In fact, they co-exist beautifully today. [The different types of devices] all work great together, and it's not like I have to choose one or the other. They serve different needs, and that's how we see it and I think that's how it will continue to be going forward."

Lockheimer went on to say that Google would keep bringing the best attributes from each platform into the other, citing the specific example of Android apps running on Chrome. He suggested there might be attributes of Chrome OS that would make sense for Google to bring over to Android at some point as well.

Step back for a minute and think about what that implies. A Chrome OS-Android merger is actually happening right in front of our eyes, folks -- and it has been for some time. Just not in the form some people were expecting.

A merger by any other name...

Google gave us the first signs of Chrome OS and Android coming together in 2014, when then-recently-appointed Chrome OS and Android chief (and now Google CEO) Sundar Pichai took the wraps off the initial cross-compatible app effort along with other platform-connecting features. As I observed at the time:

This is the type of cross-platform integration Pichai appears to be bringing to Android and Chrome. It's all about making things consistent and connected -- not creating a one-or-the-other-style merger.

The aligning of the two platforms has slowly but steadily been moving forward ever since. We've seen bits of Android-like Material Design popping up in Chrome OS for many months now, ranging from a redesigned Calculator app to the implementation of Android's Roboto font all throughout the system. Chrome OS's Files app got a Material makeover in early 2015, and a new Android-reminiscent launcher -- complete with Google Now integration -- appeared on Chromebooks that same spring. Just this month, a full OS-level redesign started rolling out and bringing a familiar Material feel to the core Chrome OS interface.

Remember, too, that Chrome OS is just a step beyond Chrome -- Google's widely adopted cross-platform browser. And remember: Google's goal as a company is ultimately to get you to spend more time using the Internet and thus Google services, regardless of what kind of device you carry. That's how Google makes its money, and that's why Google has always had a largely platform-agnostic approach to development.

That perspective helps illustrate the importance of Chrome OS to Google -- an importance that would logically exceed any concern over the supposed "messiness" of maintaining multiple platforms. Think about it: Chrome OS and Chrome the browser already share native support for things like the ability to edit Office files within a tab. Once Google has a large number of Android apps running on Chrome OS, what would stop the company from eventually offering that capability within the regular Chrome browser on other operating systems as well?

It opens up some pretty interesting possibilities, as I posited last spring:

Could Chrome OS's continued expansion pave the way for Chrome the browser to become a universal Google "operating system" of sorts -- one that runs within other operating systems? Even now, with all of the browser's current apps and functionality, Google isn't too far from that reality. These types of additions could theoretically provide the fuel Google needs to get the rest of the way there.

Now, look: I certainly can't say for sure what Google is or isn't planning. Outside of Google, few people can. Maybe everything we've heard has been a game of semantics and some sweeping combination of Chrome OS and Android really is on the horizon. Anything's possible.

I will say this, though: With everything we know about the two platforms' ongoing evolutions and Google's general approach to development -- not to mention Lockheimer's recent remarks on the subject -- a continuation of this more nuanced sort of convergence sure seems to make sense. And full support for Android apps on Chromebooks would be a logical next step in that process. If that isn't the case and a dramatic one-platform-or-the-other combination is, in fact, in the cards -- well, there's quite the convincing cover-up act going on around it.

Only time will tell what Google's long-term plan for the platforms ends up being, but it's worth keeping in mind that "merging" can have different meanings -- and as evidence continues to suggest, things aren't always as black and white as they initially may seem.

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