Chrome App Launcher Makes PCs More Chromebook-Like

The Chrome app launcher makes Google's web browswer like an operating system within an operating system.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

Chrome's app launcher running TextDrive on a Windows PC.

In the near future, using Google’s Chrome web browser on a PC will become a lot more like using a Chromebook.

That’s because the app launcher, which has been a core part of the Chromebook experience, is on its way to Windows. The launcher sits directly on the Windows taskbar, right next to the Start button (or hot corner, if you’re using Windows 8). Click on it, and up pops a list of web apps, just as it does on a Chromebook.

To try the launcher right now, you must install the Chrome dev channel–a pre-beta version of the browser–then install a “packaged app,” such as TextDrive, through the Chrome Web Store. You’ll then see a prompt to start using the launcher.

Many of Chrome’s apps are just glorified web pages. In that sense, opening them from the launcher isn’t much different than typing the address into the browser’s location bar.

But packaged apps, like Text Drive, are different. They can work without an Internet connection and they look more like regular applications, running in their own self-contained windows. And just like on a  Chromebook, you can pin these apps to the task bar, so they’re only a click away.

At the moment, these packaged apps aren’t searchable in the Chrome Web Store, but they soon will be, and they’ll help make Chrome feel more like a proper operating system, not just a browser. By extension, the new app launcher turns Chrome into a platform within a platform. It’ll become increasingly likely that you spend all your time using Chrome apps instead of native ones. And in Google’s view, the more time you spend within its platform, the better.

We’re seeing a similar strategy play out now on the iPhone. Google’s Search and Gmail apps for the iPhone allow you to open links directly in Chrome instead of Apple’s Safari browser. Searching for a location in Chrome allows you open Google Maps for turn-by-turn directions. There are still some noticeable gaps–you can’t, for instance, jump into the Gmail iPhone app by clicking an e-mail address in Chrome–but it’s clear that Google is trying to keep people hooked into its own services.

The timing of Google’s Chromebook Pixel, a high-end laptop with a touch screen, doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Google is planning for a future where every computer has a touchscreen, even traditional laptops. The Pixel seems to me like an experiment–a way to get developers to start designing web apps for touchscreens.

But as GigaOM points out, developers don’t have much incentive without a big user base, and at $1,399, the Chromebook Pixel will be a niche product at best. That’s why having the same experience on Chrome for Windows starts to make sense. Lots of Windows 8 PCs are starting to include touchscreens, so between the Chromebook Pixel and Windows 8 devices, developers could find the scale they’re looking for. And Google will have ushered Chrome into the touch era, whether it’s on a Chromebook or not.

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