Google’s Chrome OS gets new app muscle with built-in Linux

Developers and schools will love the programming tools they’ll be able to run on Chromebooks now, Google says at its Google I/O show.

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Good news if you’re a Chrome OS power user: You’ll soon be able to run Linuxsoftware like programming tools, photo editors and word processors on the Google operating system.

At its Google I/O show Tuesday, the company announced it’s released a test version of software that brings the Debian Stretch version of Linux to its personal computer software. Right now it’ll only run on Google’s own Pixelbook, but more than half of today’s Chromebooks have the necessary hardware horsepower, and by the end of the year Google will expand well beyond its own Chrome OS device, said Kan Liu, a Chrome product manager.

Most people won’t enable the Linux feature, Liu said. But there are some who’ll really appreciate it: programmers who like more powerful development tools and schools that want to offer students a lot more computer science classes.

The move in effect means that Chrome OS is three operating systems packed into one. Chrome OS started with the ability to run only web apps like Google Docs, Facebook and Gmail. Then over the last two years, Google brought Android apps to Chrome OS, though the fit can be awkward if an app just designed for a smartphone arrives on a big-screen laptop. And now we’ve got Linux — the open-source operating system that actually was the the invisible foundation for Chrome OS all along.

“Having a device that can be flexible for its users is really important,” said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. “Developers are the main group that’s likely going to benefit. They’ll have an inexpensive appliance where they can do their work.”

The news emerged at Google I/O, the giant developer conference at which the company unveils new products and services that arrive in coming months. That includes everything from an experimental smarter smart assistant that phones in appointments for you to new features that write your Gmail responses.

The arrival of Linux means Chrome OS will become a curious combination of old and new laptop software. Chrome OS debuted with deeply integrated security, frequent and no-fuss updates, fast booting and cloud synchronization that lets you easily move to a new machine or “power wash” back to a pristine state. But Linux app support brings the operating system ways of Unix, developed first in the 1970s. Granted, Unix and Linux have advanced by leaps and bounds since then, but decades-old command-line tools remain a core element.

The Linux ability will require you to put your Pixelbook onto the Chrome OS developer release channel, a rougher version of the OS where Google tests new features. Later, Google plans to promote the features to the ordinary stable release.

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