Google’s iPad App: Almost Chrome, and Trouble for Apple

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Google has earned a reputation of late for releasing troubled iOS apps. Gmail was so buggy in its initial state that Google had to pull it from the App Store. Google+ was temperamental too, and even now it lags behind its Android counterpart in getting new features. After the launch of iOS 5, Google had to pull its Voice app for a week due to crashes.

So when Google releases a beautiful, flawless iOS app like Google Search for iPad, I figure the company is up to something.

Despite the name, Google Search does more than spit back search results. The app presents you with big, colorful links to several Google services, including Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Google+, Picasa, YouTube and Google Books. These are apps within the app, sliding onto the screen in a self-contained web browser. You can also search by voice within the app, and get instant search results as you type.

As is, I can see myself spending a lot of time in Google’s iPad app, but what’s frustrating is that with a few tweaks, Google Search could be a proper iPad web browser, and probably the best one. All it needs is a full URL bar instead of a search box at the top of the screen, some bookmarks and a way to open multiple browser tabs. The groundwork for a clean, snappy interface with useful search tools is already in place. Add some more features, and suddenly it’s Chrome for iPad.

And that’s where things could get really crazy–as in, Google creating its own competing app platform within iOS.

I’m not the only one to suspect a secret plot in Mountain View. Over at The Next Web, Matt Panzarino argues that this app is Google’s way of sneaking its own web-based operating system, known as Chrome OS, onto the iPad. He figures that Google could update the app over time, replacing each web app with native software, and he suspects that Google’s Chrome OS team is behind the whole thing.

I think Panzarino has it backwards. Instead of tying in more native apps, Google should be adding more web apps, not only from its own services, but from the Chrome Web Store. By working with third-party developers to make their web apps touch-friendly, Google could build up a tablet app catalog that works in its own iPad browser.

A grid of empty spaces hints at more apps to come.

Some of the work is already done. Try accessing NPR’s Chrome web app from an iPad. It looks almost exactly like the native App Store version–it responds to finger swipes and it plays audio within the browser. Other apps are part way there. Vimeo Couch Mode, for instance, has the interface in place, but uses Flash for video instead of the iPad-friendly HTML5. (Vimeo’s main site uses HTML5 when accessed on an iPhone or iPad.)

(LIST: ‘Do a Barrel Roll’ and Several Other Fun Google Easter Eggs)

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