I was very excited to post about the arrival of two very significant apps last week in the Play Store. Well, not the arrival of those apps, per se, but the arrival of their PWA counterparts in place of the standard offer Android APKs. The two apps highlighted were YouTube TV and Twitter, and both services have fantastic Android apps and PWAs alike that have been available on Chromebooks for some time now. In the case of both apps, if you wanted the Android version on your Chromebook, you went to the Play Store for the install and if you wanted the web app (PWA) version, you went to the URL and clicked the install icon in your omnibar.
It was clear enough, but I’d wager up until this change happened, few users actually installed the PWA of either Twitter or YouTube TV. And, honestly, that’s unfortunate. You see, on Chrome OS, web apps are the home team. Sure, you can run Android apps (the experience has become quite good for a large number of them) and Linux apps, too, but the OS was built for the web and you can feel it when you run a good PWA. With the way Chrome OS handles PWAs these days, there’s little reason not to opt for the web app when possible as they are stable, work offline, give you an icon, open in a window, and behave as natively as any other application you could install on any other platform. There’s one barrier for web apps right now that circles around their inability to deliver some of the offline features of their native app equivalents, but we’ll talk about that in a later post. For most apps and services, the PWA is the best possible experience on a Chromebook.
It seems Google feels this way as well, and the changes to the YouTube TV and Twitter apps only solidify that point. Open the Play Store on a Chromebook and go to install either app and you will get the PWA – not the Android app – by default. From what we can tell, there isn’t even an option for the user to choose. Instead, the choice is up to the app developer to serve the right app for the task at hand. Of course, no app developer would force a less-capable app on their users just for the sake of doing so. I’d wager most developers won’t make a move like this until the PWA version of their app is just as capable as their native app. There are other services that I’d argue are good enough to make this same transition, but we’re waiting to either hear about them or find them on our own at this point. Off the top of my head, I could see YouTube, YouTube Music, Netflix, Spotify, Google Play Music and more making this move in the near future, but that is pure speculation.
For all their abilities, PWAs have been pretty tough to find and install up until now, though. Sure, the process is easy if you know where to look, but most people don’t and never bother searching for it. If more and more PWAs begin showing up in the Google Play Store, it becomes a really great place for developers to begin targeting Chromebook users for the apps they already have built. It’s not as if Twitter went and built their PWA just for Chrome OS. They serve the same codebase on their website and the PWA simply extends that code to allow the site to behave like an app on your Chromebook. The big difference is this application being found, installed, and handled completely by the Play Store. Before now, I would have considered that impossible, but I’m realizing the abilities of the Play Store on a Chromebook have outgrown the simplicity of Android app installs and removals. It’s bigger than that now and the Play Store seems capable of so much more from an app delivery standpoint now.
All this begs the question: what if the exact same steps are taken with Linux apps as well? What if Google could use this newfound Play Store ability to leverage some of the great apps available via the Linux container on Chrome OS? Right now, apps like Steam can be installed with a download and double-click of a file. The system takes care of everything else. With the Play Store able to reach outside it’s normal operating bounds to install and manage Chrome PWAs, what’s to stop it from doing the same for Linux apps? Imagine searching for Steam in the Play Store, only seeing the listing if you are on a Chromebook (which is already doable), clicking install, and sitting back as the Play Store installs the Linux app for you. As Linux one day exits the eternal Beta status it is in, that would be a pretty amazing trick to have in the bag.