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Google details how Windows apps will run on its Chromebooks

Google Pixelbook Go
Google Pixelbook Go (Image credit: Daniel Bader / Windows Central)

If you're one of the many people wishing your Chromebook could run legacy Windows applications like Microsoft Office, Google has your back.

We learned earlier that Google planned to use its new partnership with Parallels, a company that specializes in making a lightweight virtual machine, to allow legacy Windows apps to function on Chrome OS. Now, in an interview with The Verge, Chrome OS product manager Cyrus Mistry has detailed how things are planned to work.

Your Chromebook will run Windows inside its own virtual machine.

Parallels is a familiar name for folks who need to run Windows software on a MacBook. The company makes a program that installs just like any other native application, but when you run it you're able to load a full operating system inside it. You're then able to open that operating system as an application inside MacOS.

Once you have the virtual machine running Windows loaded, you can use it to install other applications, like Microsoft Office. You're not really running those installed programs natively inside the host operating system, but it feels seamless and is very simple to do.

All of this needs to be simple enough for everyone to use.

And simplicity is the key here. It's always been possible to run Windows inside a virtual machine on a Chromebook, but it involved booting your Chromebook to a full-fledged Linux installation. Chrome itself never supported any virtual machine applications like Parallels or VMWare.

That's just too difficult for most people to do. Since people want to use a Chromebook but have a need for Windows programs, a solution needed to be figured out if Google wanted to entice more people to buy into Chrome OS. Asking people to install a new bootloader so they could boot Linux and Chrome, or even asking people to navigate a Linux desktop is more than casual users will want to try.

Parallels Desktop For Chrome Enterprise

Source: The Verge (Image credit: Source: The Verge)

Since any Windows application is inside a Parallels virtual machine, Chrome's security isn't compromised. That's one thing you give away when you start dual-booting and unlock your Chromebook's protected boot or modify its BIOS. The Chrome team takes security very seriously, as we see with the sometimes frustrating way Android apps perform. Keeping Windows inside a virtual machine keeps the boot sequence secure and helps keep malware contained.

Running Windows this way keeps your Chromebook's security features fully intact.

Perhaps the more exciting news is that Google and Parallels partnership will also extend and eventually include Parallels' Coherence feature, which allows you to set everything up then simply launch a Windows program from a desktop icon without booting up a full and separate virtual machine.

This would allow users to install those Windows programs they need and treat them as native Chrome apps; open them when they are needed and close them once they are finished. You would still need a licensed copy of Windows and a licensed copy of the software you want to use, but once the installation is done you would think you were simply using another Chrome OS app.

Parallels 15 Desktop Hero

Source: iMore (Image credit: Source: iMore)

The bigger issue that may dampen your excitement is the hardware inside your Chromebook. One of Chrome's best features is its ability to run on meager hardware that doesn't have the power to run Microsoft Windows very well. That's why a $300 Chromebook runs fine but a $300 laptop running Windows 10 doesn't — Windows needs a lot more "oomph" to power it.

Don't expect your cheap Chromebook to run every Windows program, but the ones you need will run fine.

You probably won't be running Adobe Photoshop on your cheap Chromebook. You're also not going to be able to install Steam and play your favorite AAA games unless you buy into a very expensive model. And this is slated to come to Chrome Enterprise users at first with no word about a general release. But you will be able to use Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel or just about any other productivity application for Windows without any issues.

I've used Parallels on my MacBook pro for years, and have also gone all out with Linux and a VM to run Windows on my Pixelbook. I can safely say that this solution will work fine for most people who need to use some Windows programs for work or things like personal finance. As long as you don't set your expectations too high, you're going to love it.

I'm an RHCE and Electrical Engineer who loves gadgets of all kinds. You'll find my writings across Mobile Nations and you can hit me on Twitter if you want to say hey.

24 Comments
  • Is this the death knell for Windows 10x? If we can run legacy windows apps on Chrome OS why do we need Windows 10x? Perhaps Microsoft should follow their own lead with Edgium and Surface Duo, and come out with a Surface branded Chromebook?
  • If we can run web apps on Windows what do we need Chrome OS for? Just because one product does a thing doesn't mean there can't be others doing the same, does it? And anyway, you'll still need a Windows license and Parallels costs money as well. The impact of Chrome OS on the market is completely overhyped in this forum, outside some niche markets like the US education market it's virtually non-existent - much more so than could ever be said about Windows Phone. On a global scale, Chrome OS has barely ever made a dent. People have been talking about Chrome OS threatening Windows for years in these forums, and nothing has ever changed. The world doesn't care the least about Chrome OS, yet people in Windows forums like this are somehow morbidly obsessed with it and the threat it supposedly poses to Windows and the fantasy that it's someday going to "kill" Windows. It's interesting to watch, but it's not based in reality. Not for a lack of potential, mind you, as I do think that Chrome OS has that, but inertia seems to be too big a challenge for it (unfortunately, I'll say). Did you know that macOS has managed to more than double its global market share in the past five years? An OS that's being sold exclusively with some of the most expensive computers in the world. What can one say about Chrome OS, an OS that's being sold with, among others, some of the very cheapest computers in the world? It's been hovering above and below 1% for over three years. Sometimes it's risen above that, only to fall again, because it's barely more than a rounding error. Nothing has ever succeeded in finally turning it into something else. Android apps didn't, Linux apps did it even less, and this certainly won't. Note I'm not implying in any way that Windows 10X will ever be anything resembling a success - it may very well fail, for similar or different reasons to why Chrome OS has never managed to do anything than languish in its same old niche. In fact, given Microsoft's track record AND the inertia of the PC market, I'd almost count on that.
  • "The impact of Chrome OS on the market is completely overhyped in this forum," I don't think it's so much the current impact of Chrome OS, it's about future impact. Microsoft themselves fear that Chrome OS might well do in Enterprise what it did in Education. And there's every reason to believe it's quite possible. Outside of IT, most enterprise cube dwellers need little more than a light OS. Hence Microsoft's attempt at light OS... Windows 10x. Light OS will happen, it's the inevitable path of computing. It's not so much a question of if, but when. And unfortunately it appears Microsoft will be late to the party once again.
  • Late to the party? Um-Windows 10 is already lighter than Chrome OS or Android with regard to hardware and performance. Funny how these facts are overlooked. PS Handwriting this comment on a 2012 atom tablet with 2 GB of RAM on the 2004 update, fluidly -something Android couldn't even do.
  • My surface 3 (non-Pro) runs better than ever with 2004 (just updated it last week).
  • My surface 3 (non-Pro) runs better than ever with 2004 (just updated it last week).
  • Except that this has been said for years, which is exactly my point. I agree with the potential of a light OS but it's clear something has been holding either the idea, or just Chrome OS itself back for years, consistently. Why should it change all of a sudden? Of course Microsoft is right to invest in this field, as the potential is there. But that doesn't mean one has to pretend that Chrome OS has already won the battle, or that Microsoft is late to the party - judging by the former's consistently lacking performance, that doesn't seem the case at all.
  • You make a good point about Chromebooks having been out for years (since June 2011) and still barely putting a dent in laptop market share, excepting its dominance in K-12 Education. I still see the world of tech inevitably pushing toward thin client, always connected, cloud connected computing. It reminds me of the late 90s when the internet was first becoming accepted by the masses. I remember tech pundits back then claiming that because of the internet and networking advancements the world would be paperless "within 5 years". Paperless didn't happen as quick as folks were claiming, obviously, but it DID happen. I can't remember the last time I've printed a document out at work. Pretty much so the only ones using printers at work anymore are folks of retirement age. That said, I personally hope Microsoft can pull it off with Windows 10x. But to me it seems like the same old half-hearted, complacent, attitude that plagued Windows mobile on their part. It's rumored Microsoft is having loads of problems getting even its own flagship products to behave correctly in containers on Win 10x. Google on the other hand with its head start in light computing (Chrome OS), head start in cloud productivity (G Suite), its growing market share in cloud hosting via Google Cloud, it's head start in cloud gaming via Stadia, its head start in porting its services to Progressive Web Apps, and its dominance in mobile endpoints with Android make it seem to me that Google is perfectly poised to rule the world when cloud computing truly picks up momentum.
  • So Google found a way to sell more Windows and Office licenses? I bet Microsoft is happy to learn Chromebooks are about to become another new potential revenue source. Way to go Google.
  • Now I can run Notepad and Sticky Notes on my chromebook. Exciting times.
  • I'm actually really impressed that Goog has stood behind this failed experiment for so long, and are actually continuing to develop it. They better get to steppin' if they want it to be a thing ... I see some dark clouds gathering on the anti-trust front. :)
  • "If you're one of the many people wishing your Chromebook could run legacy Windows applications like Microsoft Office, Google has your back." "Legacy Windows applications" like Microsoft Office huh? What alternate reality is this? Last I checked, both Windows and Office are very much the current market leaders and show no signs of fading into irrelevance. Before you can declare the Windows personal computer or rich PC software to be "legacy", you have to first show that you have a successful replacement paradigm. Google's attempt to jiu-jitsu Windows and Mac OS with a glorified web browser has barely made a dent in the market after literally years of work (Chrome OS might have 1% of the laptop market... on a good day). Words have consequences. Use them appropriately.
  • I thought "legacy" just refers to win32 programs? Not specific applications.
  • Oxford Dictionaries defines "legacy" in the context of computing as: "denoting or relating to software or hardware that has been superseded but is difficult to replace because of its wide use". The salient word there is "superseded". To become "legacy" there would first have to be widespread agreement that something superior exists. Parallels enables all types Windows apps to run on supported Chromebooks, not just Win32. I believe the author here is applying this word to Windows software generally, implying that Windows as a platform is "legacy". Hardcore Chrome OS fans might use that word in a non-ironic way in 2020, but few others would.
  • Locally installed Office has been superseded by web apps. It will just take time to transition.
  • And I can already run these on my Chromebook. (Though I don't completely agree with the premise of web apps having overtaken local installations)
  • Google. Nope Im Doing everything I can To get away from them.
  • what? i can run virtual machine in the chromeos to run full windows to work with office and games? amazing. its miracle!!!
  • why pay for two licences? buy Windows instead 😂
  • Because you want to run your productivity programs virtually and dedicate all the hardware and software in real mode to chrome. We all dream of this and now we can. Whats nice is that you can print to a virtual PDF and have chrome open it in the cloud
  • If this virtual machine solution runs on local hardware, then it would be great for me, since I prefer that over a cloud solution. The only question is how much more hardware a Chromebook may need. The good thing is that Chrome OS's relatively low memory footprint means that if a Chromebook has 8 GB of RAM, it could leave approx. 4-5GB of RAM free for a Windows 10 virtual machine for running one or two apps. And obviously an x86 CPU would be needed, so perhaps a Ryzen mobile 4300U could work (has enough oompf for virtualization and is not terribly expensive compared to Intel).
  • Problem is that most Chromebooks that you can buy today come with Intel Pentium/Celeron or AMD A4 CPU with 2GB or 4GB of RAM. How would you possibly run a good Windows VM on that hardware?
  • That's why I am saying that it will require better hardware. A Pentium/Celeron or AMD A4 CPU will definitely not cut it for this type of thing, so I can only see this Windows virtualization feature being offered on higher-end Chromebooks with beefier CPUs/RAM. I think even a Core i3 or a Ryzen 3 4300 U series can get the job done if you're not running a crazy-complex app.
  • Why would anyone buy an expensive Chromebook for £600+ just to emulate Windows apps when you could buy a Windows 10 machine? The comments below are right: I have a 1.2Ghz i3 running Windows 10 from an SSD and it's as fast as my old MacBook.