While not fully rolled out just yet, Google is at work on implementing a new Android container on Chrome OS that takes more cues from the work that was done on the Linux Crostini container for Chromebooks than the current ARC++ container we’ve had since 2016. Dubbed ARCVM, this new container is already on the road to hitting over 100 current Chromebooks and is here on a handful that we have in the office right now. Overall, ARCVM will make for a more-stable, more-advanced Android app experience on Chrome OS. As I wrote during Google I/O this year:
In a push to make Android apps on Chromebooks better, the team is not just pushing Android 11 via a new VM container (ARCVM), but they are continuing to provide developers the tools they need to make better experiences across larger screens, take advantage of multiple input methods (keyboard, mouse, touchscreen) and optimize apps for both x86 and ARM binaries. As Google continues to make the app building experience more and more seamless, we sincerely hope that more awesome Android app experiences will follow.
A small but meaningful surprise with ARCVM
While I’m excited to see Android apps get more stable and provide better, more-native experiences on Chromebooks, I was surprised today when I realized that there’s a feature built into ARCVM right now that brings a return to something I’ve sorely missed in Android apps on my Chromebook for a long time: parallel operation.
For a short time in the past, Android apps could be set to run in parallel and not pause when put in the background. It was great for things like Google Analytics, small games or messaging services that you wanted to keep running on the side. For example, I loved having Google Analytics open up in the corner of my screen so I could monitor real-time traffic here on Chrome Unboxed at a glance. Once Android apps on Chromebooks lost the ability to actually run when not in focus, it became pointless to do this. As soon as I clicked out of the Google Analytics window, everything paused and real-time data wasn’t viewable until I clicked the window again.
For now, ARCVM fixes this long-standing issue with Android apps on Chromebooks. Just a few days ago I opened up Analytics and went to write an article and I noticed the real-time numbers continued moving in the background. I continued testing other apps and to my delight, every Android app I kept open continued running whether I was focused on it or not. While this probably isn’t great for battery life, I think Chrome OS should give users the benefit of the doubt and let us simply close the windows on apps we don’t plan on using.
I argued this before and I’ll say it again: I understand pausing background apps on a small screen where you can’t see all your open applications at a quick glance, but I don’t see the benefit on a full-blown desktop environment. As a Chromebook user, I expect my windows to keep doing what they do even when I’m not clicked into them. After all, that’s what all my open tabs and web apps do and I’m just fine shutting down the ones I’m not using at the time. Since I can more easily see my open applications on a desktop environment, it’s far less likely that I’ll have rogue apps running down my battery without knowing it.
With this in place, Android apps easily become a lot more valuable to a person like myself. Whether its a messaging app, an analytic tool, or a media playback service, I like knowing that a window of any size or any origin will stay in the posture of doing its job whether I’m paying it attention or not. I’m unsure if Google meant to make it this way, but I’m very hopeful it stays around and becomes part of the general Android experience from this point out.