Launching in October of 2008, the Android Marketplace was the first iteration of the store that allowed Android users to download and install apps and games to their phones. In 2012, Google rebranded and completely overhauled it to become the Google Play Store. Since then, these apps have been installed in cars, watches, refrigerators, and yes, even Chromebooks. Though this is the case, we still call them “Android apps” – why? Yes, I know that in each of these instances they’re still being installed within the Android framework, but I think that they’ve outgrown that nomenclature and can continue to mature if we change our perception of them going forward. Let me explain.
For several years, Google has been trying to kick developers into gear in hopes that they would start crafting their apps for larger screens. In particular, they’ve wanted them to optimize for Chromebooks and have even given them a roadmap to do so when they launched their ChromeOS.dev resources.
Short of begging them to craft full-screen experiences that utilize background processes, mouse and keyboard support, and more, they’ve received little fruit in return for their labors. Why is it that nearly 1.85 million apps on the Google Play Store are being limited to our phones and tablets when they hold so much possibility? You could argue that it’s simply because they were built for them alone, but I disagree. I think that they can and should scale to maturity and become increasingly useful outside of their originally intended ecosystem. I’ve spoken to many app developers and they seem to think the problem is two-fold.
Firstly, they state that their user-base for Chromebooks is not large enough to warrant dedicating a team to optimize their apps for Google’s laptops (though admittedly, in many cases they’re just not tracking these statistics because they, themselves are just not familiar with Chromebooks). Secondly, they have told me that they don’t feel as though Google has given them enough incentive to take apps they created years ago for phones and tablets and rework them entirely for Chromebooks.
If this is true, I can see why there’s been little improvement in apps that feel like they belong on a laptop. Yes, most apps “work” on Chromebooks, and all apps that have a tablet mode that can rotate into landscape orientation will fill out the Chromebooks display, but this is a far cry from a true laptop experience – icons, text, and other visual elements remain chunky and oddly placed for fingers instead of mice, rendering issues abound and I can still only play maybe five Google Play games that I know of with a game controller – it’s depressing.
I think that developers need to take this more seriously, but perhaps it’s cyclical – maybe if we stop calling them “Android apps” – and therefore perpetuating the stigma that comes with them – truly showing interest that these “Google Play App” experiences are optimized for our Chromebooks, then developers may see a need to take action. Perhaps if we saw more developers taking advantage of the opportunity to optimize their apps for Chromebooks, users would start asking or even begging them to do this more often. Are we stuck in a never-ending loop? I’d encourage you to reach out to your favorite developer using their Play Store listing contact email address to let them know that you want to use their apps on your Chromebook!
If you’re a developer and you’re reading this, then you may be interested to know that devs who do take advantage of creating larger screen experiences see explosive growth in their userbase. For example, Gameloft – creator of the Asphalt 8 racing game saw 9x more revenue by optimizing for Chrome OS – that’s enticing. Additionally, Pixonic, creator of the popular War Robots game grew their engagement by 25% on Chrome OS by applying a few optimizations. Games like Roblox have long embraced Chromebooks and continue to do so. There’s actually a whole news section that Google keeps up to date on chromeos.dev where they blog about these success stories, so it’s clear that they have a mind for taking Google Play Apps along for the ride as Chrome OS continues to see massive growth spurts year over year.
It’s true that progressive web apps (PWAs) are taking hold and we’re all excited about them, but I believe that Google Play apps will continue to have a place on our devices for years to come – at least in some form. For example, when Android R eventually arrives on Chrome OS, Google could very well be looking to take control of the situation themselves to some extent. By running Google Play apps in a separate virtual machine just like Crostini using something called ARCVM, they could have a bit more control over how they look and run on Chromebooks, thus providing a more streamlined and consistent experience. We’ll have to wait and see what happens with that, but we’ll keep you up to date as we learn more.
All of this to say that continuing to box apps into our phones and tablets when they’re capable of being so much more is doing them a disservice, but what do you think? Is it just a matter of syntax that “Android apps” start being called “Google Play apps” and treated as much more? Is it important to you that their perception be transformed or are you sticking with web apps? Do you believe that they can and should co-exist as Chrome OS evolves and matures?
I may sound like I’m nitpicking, but I still think that it’s an important conversation to have and I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. I’m tired of recommending apps and games for Chromebook owners only to feel ashamed that they don’t have full or even partial mouse, keyboard, or gamepad support. I’m tired of opening an app only to find that it’s stuck in portrait mode with black blocks on the left and right side of it, only then to hear someone watching bash Chrome OS and say that it’s just a big Android tablet. I’m tired of chunky display elements and ugly render issues. If you’re an app developer, tell me – is Google doing enough to incentivize you to optimize for Chrome OS or is there still some massive roadblock? I’m genuinely interested in hearing your side of the story!