Supersize me! Does your app belong on a larger screen?

Google is encouraging developers to port their apps for Chromebooks and the new generation of folding phones. Let’s explore why…

What is a mobile device anyways? Perhaps it seems like a stupid question, but for most people ‘mobile’ equals phone. And we all know that the handheld mobile phone now dominates the digital landscape. We’re a long way from the days of desktop computers with wired ethernet connections.

But think about it for a minute, and you’ll realize that the picture is nuanced. Just as phones have turned into mini-computers, so computers have become wireless and portable.

The lines are blurring.

Let’s take the most obvious example: the Chromebook. At the start of the decade, Google had the revelation that the laptop need not be an expensive device running hungry software and housing a huge hard drive.

Google had begun to move applications to the cloud. It knew that the laptop could be a ‘dumb’ (and therefore inexpensive) device that could simply connect to these online services. Google’s hunch was spot-on.

The first Chromebooks went on sale in June 2011. By 2013, Google had sold 1.76 million Chromebooks in the US alone. By the end of 2018, Chromebook unit sales were up 22 percent over the year, while the rest of the notebook category fell 6.1 percent.

Another important element in the rise of the Chromebook was that it could run apps, meaning Android developers can reach users on any device.

In 2016, Google announced it would bring Google Play to (most) Chromebook owners. In short, users would be able to run phone Android apps without compromising their speed, simplicity, or security.

And they did. At the 2019 Android Dev Summit, Google confirmed that time spent in Android apps on Chrome OS grew 4x from March 2018 to 2019. Meanwhile, the number of monthly active Chrome OS users who enabled Android apps on their devices increased by 250 percent.

The takeaway was obvious: Android developers should think about modifying their apps to run on larger screens. And not just Chromebooks. Foldables are coming, Google is launching more Pixelbooks, and then there are the 175m Android-based tablets that have the Google Play store installed.

As Google says:

By making adjustments for larger screens, you can provide richer experiences across all these devices and tap into a wider audience of app users.

Unsurprisingly, the company wants to make this portability as easy as possible. It hasn’t always been the case. The process improved in 2018 when Google added Linux support to Chrome OS. Then, earlier this year, it revealed a one-click install for the Android Studio development environment on a Chromebook.

Just weeks ago, Google raised the topic again. It announced that Chrome OS’s upcoming M80 release would let developers deploy Android apps directly to Chromebook. In the past, you could only test them on Android phones. The blog post also spoke about how some developers are getting great results from taking big-screen formats more seriously.

Evernote is an excellent example of this. Google reported that Evernote has a policy of always porting to new platforms. With the move to Chrome OS, it had to factor in a different keyboard experience, re-design the toolbar and ensure navigation worked without a ‘Back’ button.

And it pays off.

Evernote said the average user is spending 3x more time on large screen devices‘ and 4x more time when using the Google Pixelbook, for example.

Overall, Google has four key recommendations for app developers looking at deploying larger screens:

  1. Test for compatibility. Users will want to switch between phone, tablet, and notebook. Make sure your core app functions work smoothly over all platforms.
  2. Think multi-window mode and free-form window resizing. Set up your app to handle configuration changes to avoid crashes when people rotate their devices.
  3. Keyboard, mouse, game (and other) controllers. Phones are all about touch input. Many large screen devices are not. Add support for the different UIs.
  4. Hardware support. Are you using the Native Development Kit? Make sure to support x86 (32 and 64bit) ABIs for optimal performance.

So, is porting to large screen devices worth it? Well, it’s obviously not for every app developer. You have to balance the extra effort/cost with the potential upside. But for the kind of products that customers like to run on multiple platforms – with apps related to email, note-taking, and so on – it’s definitely time to think big.