Android on the Desktop

It was just a bit short of a week ago that the Wall Street Journal and other outlets began reporting that Google might fold Chrome OS into Android. Ars Technica has an interesting op-ed about what a desktop-capable Android might be like.

So, what does this mean for the average app developer?

Tactically, nothing changed last week, so keep on keepin’ on.

Strategically, though, the odds of Android making a move into Chrome OS form factors — notably desktops and notebooks — climbed a fair bit. There are three possible trajectories that this could take:

  1. Android could become moderately interesting on desktops and notebooks reasonably quickly, selling tens of millions of devices in the first couple of years, putting it on par with Android Wear and Chromebooks

  2. Following up that earlier success, Android could become huge on desktops and notebooks over the next several years, seriously eating into Windows’ market share, with sales of hundreds of developers of millions of devices, or more

  3. Android on these new form factors could remain a tiny niche, either due to slow adoption by manufacturers and consumers (Android TV, Android Auto) or just generally being uninspiring (Google TV)

Of course, we have no way to determine which of these trajectories is the one that might transpire.

That being said, here are some things to consider as an app developer:

  • Update your app to support tablets, if you have not done so already. There is a popular belief that Android developers ignore tablets. I have not attempted to conduct a survey to determine whether or not this is true. However, perception is a decent chunk of reality, and if we don’t support tablets, people will think that we won’t support desktops or notebooks either. Besides, getting your app running on larger touchscreen sizes will be a useful precursor for getting your app running on desktops and notebooks

  • Get a Bluetooth (or perhaps USB) keyboard and ensure that your app is keyboard-friendly. Android has supported physical keyboards from the outset (hello, HTC Dream!). While few phones offer physical keyboards today (e.g., BlackBerry Priv), some percentage of tablet users will be using keyboards. The more your app can work well with keyboards, the easier it will be to transition to desktops and notebooks. The bigger challenge — transitioning from a touchscreen model to one that works well with mice and trackpads — is the sort of thing that we’ll need to wait on to see what a desktop-style Android looks like.

  • If you can, poke around with a multi-windowing variant of Android. Many Samsung devices have supported S-Window for a while, as have a smattering of devices from other major manufacturers. Smaller outfits have made multi-window capabilities part of their core experience, such as Jide with their Remix line of devices. In particular, Jide’s Remix Mini is an interesting experiment in just the sort of desktop-centric Android that we might see coming in official form someday. While none of these are Google-blessed ways of having more than one Android app visible at a time, they may give you some ideas for how this will be handled in some future desktop-style Android version.

  • Think about feature sets that you see in desktop apps that are missing from your app (and your competitors’ apps) and consider adding them where possible. Printing is one major example, as many desktop programs are capable of some form of print output, yet few Android apps appear to be supporting Android 4.4’s printing framework. While adding printing support might not “move the needle” much for interest in your app right now, it might be a huge win when there is a greater user expectation of printing capability.

None of these things are necessarily expensive in terms of time, effort, and equipment, though none are free. None of these things are “out of place” with existing mobile Android apps, though they are all niches. However, they are the sorts of things that can prepare you for a future with Android apps being used more on the desktop than in the hand, and as such they may be worthwhile investments for the longer term.