Updated: The title of this post was adjusted to reflect its editorial nature. Our apologies for the original title that alluded to the fact that this was anything other than that.
I’m no application developer, so I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of Android Package files (APKs) which can be downloaded officially from the Google Play Store on Android and Chrome OS devices. What I will say, however, is that Google’s recent announcement that it’s switching to something called Android App Bundles (.aab) in place of APKs could be the killing blow to Microsoft’s recent efforts to allow Windows 11 users to run phone apps on their desktops. In doing so, Google may have just maintained a very important boundary between the value proposition of Chromebooks and their competition.
Android App Bundles are interesting – they’re basically designed to separate out the different pieces of an Android app into individual files, only delivering the ones you need for your specific device upon installation. This ensures that you aren’t downloading a bunch of unnecessary code that the developers have packaged in so that their application is universal to everyone’s devices. This means that if you have a specific display type, process architecture (let’s say x86 or ARM), and so on, you’ll only be obtaining the files necessary for those specifications. It helps to keep the install small and fast, and no one gets a bunch of extra code for no reason.
This is all fantastic for users who get their apps from the Google Play Store – Android and Chromebook owners, specifically – but for those who sideload applications onto their devices due to a lack of official availability and so on, this may present a massive problem. You see, you can’t just sideload an Android App Bundle in the same way you would an APK. It remains to be seen if something like the APK Mirror Installer will be able to deliver App Bundles in the same way it could for APKs, so when Windows 11 users start attempting to sideload apps onto their PCs, they may face severe limitations in the near future.
Technically, .aab files by their very nature aren’t meant to be directly installable. Instead, .aab is a publishing format that includes all of a developer’s compiled app code and resources, but it’s up to the Google Play Store to generate and sign an APK. So, Without the Google Play Store installed on Windows 11 machines, .aab files may be completely useless for sideloading! What I’m saying is that in switching to .aab from the .apk format, Google just smacked down Microsoft’s efforts to make Chromebooks less relevant. Whether or not this was intentional, Google just protected itself from Windows 11 swooping in and attempting to steal its userbase with a pretty new coat of paint and Android app capabilities.
Windows 11 users will be able to install applications directly from the Amazon app store, but as I previously stated earlier this week, Amazon’s offerings are far inferior to the Google Play Store, in my not so humble opinion. It instead takes a curated approach, and that may be more appealing to some, but it also means that many popular apps and experiences are left out, so time and again, consumers have chosen Android and Chrome OS devices instead of Fire Tablets for this reason.
Moving forward, Google is requiring that all apps submitted to the Play Store beginning August of this year utilize the .aab format instead of the .apk format. Any apps that already exist on the store may remain in their original format, so Windows 11 users will have plenty of experiences to install and use outside of the Amazon app store, but this also means that almost all new applications and any updated applications will be out of reach for those using Microsoft’s new operating system. There will likely be cases where app developers continue to offer APKs via their own websites and sites like APK Mirror, but the majority will be required to conform, and maintaining two fronts will prove to be more work and less beneficial.
Most regular users will never make app sideloading a normal thing anyway, and newer apps and updates to older applications will likely not be able to be loaded onto Windows 11, so really it’s a moot point, but I think Microsoft’s intentions with offering the ability to install apps on its OS are two-fold. First, I have no doubt that they want to win back many of the casual users who have switched to Chromebooks over the past few years, and second, I think that the inclusion of applications on laptops and desktops has become a useful and standardized offering thanks to Google and Apple (Until PWAs fully take off), and Microsoft was the oddball out until now, so it had to fix that somehow.
Chrome OS is a lightweight, secure operating system that focuses on web applications first, so there will remain a massive market of regular computer users who prefer it to the beast that is Windows (despite its new paint), but even if Microsoft continues to offer the ability to install Android apps on desktops years from now, it can only be a good thing for consumers to have familiarity and consistency in their experience across competing devices. Again, the user comes out on top. Still, I can’t help but think that Google knew what it was doing when it decided to switch away from Android Package files and over to App Bundles.
Regardless, money will always be a driving factor for corporations and if the line separating opposing products blurs or disappears, then so does the unique value proposition. I’m not taking sides here, just stating the facts – this goes for Google as much as it does for Microsoft. Apparently, App Bundles are a nightmare transition for app developers, and users would probably very much prefer to have full reign on what apps they install on their Windows devices, so this change is great news for Google as a company and even for Chromebook users, but probably not so great for many of us who use both operating systems.