Google Launches ‘Chrome Apps’ for When the Web Falls Short

Google's web browser takes a new turn on its fifth birthday.

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Ever since Google and its hardware partners launched the first Chromebooks in 2011, they’ve argued that a browser-based operating system could be enough to serve your computing needs.

Now it’s the fifth anniversary of the Chrome web browser, and Google is admitting, in a sense, that the first Chromebooks were a little too idealistic. The company has just launched “Chrome Apps,” a set of applications that run within the Chrome browser, but look and behave like the kind of apps you’d see on a tablet or PC. You can find these apps in the Chrome Web Store on both Windows and Chrome OS, with Mac support coming in about six weeks.

“Our hope really is to dispel the notion that Chrome OS is just a web browser,” Erik Kay, a product lead on Chrome Apps, said in an interview. “We always thought that just a web browser was actually not a bad thing–it’s immense and powerful–but there are legitimate uses that people … can’t do today on their Chromebooks, and our hope is to really open that up.”

This is not Google’s first attempt at offering apps in Chrome. In 2010, the company opened the Chrome Web Store, with the goal of promoting websites that were app-like in nature. Some of these apps even worked offline.

But Chrome Apps go a little bit further. They open up in their own windows without the usual address bar and browser navigation buttons. They support additional features such as USB and Bluetooth device connectivity, and they’re all made to work without an Internet connection.

“There are some things the web can’t do, and so in order to make it a full-featured desktop operating system we needed to bring richer app capabilities to Chrome OS,” Kay said.

A few examples: Pocket lets you save articles from around the web and read them offline in a low-clutter format; Pixlr Touch Up lets you crop, resize and tweak photos without an Internet connection; Until AM is a DJ app for mixing local and online music files; and Cracking Sands is a racing game with Xbox 360 controller support.

It’s sort of weird to hear people from the Chrome team extol the virtues of offline, native apps, and I do wonder if some of the purity of Google’s browser-based operating system is being lost. Why bother with Chrome OS if it’s just going to become another app-driven operating system? For that matter, why use Chrome apps on a Windows PC or Mac when those platforms already have their own app stores?

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Kay insisted that the team’s philosophy hasn’t changed. The allure of Chrome, he said, is that users can work in the browser on multiple devices–Mac, PC or Chromebook–and have all their apps and data travel with them. Chrome provides app developers with tools to enable that kind of syncing across devices. “These apps are still going to be cloud-enabled by default,” Kay said.

Google also brushes off the notion that it’s trying to supplant the open web with its own native apps. “We are not trying to have every bit of functionality people can imagine be running on our platform,” Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, the lead product manager for Chrome Apps, said in an interview. “We want to make sure we exist and interoperate seamlessly with the web.”

On some level, I agree. Several Chrome Apps, such as Pocket’s offline reader and The Economist’s slick new app, weren’t available in the browser before, and Chrome now gives these developers a platform to work with. That’s good for users, and good for Google.

But I still remember being idealistic about web apps that worked in any browser, not just Chrome, and thinking they might some day have all the capabilities of native apps. To hear Google’s Chrome people admit that web apps aren’t always enough–well, it’s a strange new direction as Chrome turns five.

13 comments
SMP
SMP

(QUOTE)

But I still remember being idealistic about web apps that worked in any browser, not just Chrome, and thinking they might some day have all the capabilities of native apps. To hear Google’s Chrome people admit that web apps aren’t always enough–well, it’s a strange new direction as Chrome turns five.

(UNQUOTE)

It isn't strange at all. The difference between web apps and locally installed apps are that web apps run code from the Internet, where you cannot necessarily trust any site out there. On the other hand with local apps it is generally assumed that (assuming we can ignore trojans and viruses) local apps can be trusted because the computer user installed it. The permissions granted to web app code and local app code is therefore very different. In the case of a web app, for obvious reasons the app code, which is downloaded from the website that the web app runs on,  is prevented from accessing anything other than things from that site. For example a web app cannot access the local hard drive unless the user allows it for example by uploading a file. By contrast an installed local Chrome app is allowed do these things because it is supposed to be trustworthy. It is this security restriction that makes ChromeOS appear to not be "full functioned" because some of these actions are not permitted for security reasons.

The other difference is that certain concepts like the tabs, the back button etc. make no sense on a local app. ChromeOS removes this wasted screen real estate on local apps.

AyotundeAfolabiOdunowo
AyotundeAfolabiOdunowo

I'm signed in to my chrome browser and I enjoy the advantage signing in to another chrome browser elsewhere and still have my apps. PCs and Macs have become so drab without internet these days, I think it's a great direction for PCs. With the clouds, you can really go places, away from your PC. Other browsers should move in this direction.

brian_st
brian_st

Your title: "Google Launches ‘Chrome Apps’ for When the Web Falls Short" is really not correct. Chrome Apps are simply web apps as they were before, but with additional capabilities. For example, whenever possible a Chrome App is supposed to allow you to work offline and sync when you are back online. It should also sync its state (such information as what document you had open and your current position in it) so that when you stop working on one device (say a laptop at home) and open it in another say a tablet at work, you are working in the exact same spot. Using an app like a calculator in a browser tab in conjunction with say Google Docs in another tab is quite painful. Chrome apps work in their own windows like how you are use to having desktop apps behave. One assumes that things like Google Docs will become Chrome Apps soon. (Google Keep is already available.)

You ask why anyone would want these when you have Mac and Windows App stores already. Because the apps work on all desktop platforms and will add mobile support later this year. You can be using an app on an Android phone, switch to using it on an iPad, switch to using it on a Windows laptop, then open it on your Chromebook with your data and settings being kept in sync. It's kind of like what Google does with the Chrome browser (where bookmarks and settings follow you wherever you logon), except this allows third-parties to make apps that do this as well.

As to why bother with Chrome OS... well these are the native apps for Chrome OS. You will get all of the benefits of native apps on other platforms, but with the really great security and low maintenance of a Chromebook/Chromebox.

For those times you have no choice but to use a Mac or Windows machine, your apps and data will follow you there seamlessly.

You're observation about "not working in every browser" is partially valid. The problem is that Microsoft and Apple are dragging their feet on the necessary standards. Google is not alone in making these new types of apps, Firefox has a similar initiative called Open Web Apps and the two teams seem to be cooperating [though there are differences]. As a developer I can tell you that Google and Firefox are using standard web facilities whenever possible. Google is working with the Apache Cordova project to bring these facilities (to the extent possible) to all of the mobile platforms that Cordova supports. [Cordova used to be called PhoneGap, a way of making one HTML5-based application that would run on multiple mobile phone/tablet OSs.] I'm not sure of its current status as I've been focused on the desktop side of things. It is supposed to be out this year though.

You are right though, for a time, developing these apps will be a bit messy. However, it is far better than the pain one faced making cross-platform apps before. Do understand though, that using a Chrome app on your system, doesn't mean you have to use Chrome as your browser for your normal web browsing. Chrome Apps run independently from the browser. There is nothing to stop you from simultaneously running Chrome Apps, Firefox Open Web Apps, and using another browser like Safari or Internet Explorer as your default web browser.

Imagine how much easier this cross-platform facility makes things for a place like Pandora or even Time "magazine" to make an app.

Google talked a lot about this at it's last developer conference. Strangely, almost no one in the computing trade press seem to understand what Google was saying.

Here's a write up I did:

http://computingcompendium.blogspot.com/2013/05/google-io-2013-what-trade-press-missed.html

Warning, it was written for developers.


KennyStrawn177
KennyStrawn177

What the author here doesn't realize is that Chrome Packaged Apps are based off the same HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript technologies that Web apps take advantage of to begin with, so there's very little difference (other than the Chrome-specific JavaScript APIs that packaged apps are allowed to take advantage of) between hosted app development and packaged app development. People who are already web developers should therefore already have the skill to develop packaged apps that can deliver a killer punch and run across multiple operating systems.

Yes, some of them can use Native Client for individual elements, but for the most part, no, they're not native apps. They're just Web pages that load locally the same way extension (browser action and page action) pages do, only with the added ability to open outside the browser.

briab
briab

This is a step in the right direction. Chrome needs to support offline hardware like redirecting sound to other soundcards. They also need to be able to edit google docs offline. I had to switch to skydrive because I could edit a word doc offline and online. The only thing inside inside a gdoc is a weblink. If they want to get me back they need to make their doc formats public.

SMP
SMP

@brian_st 

Offline operation and syncing is available on web apps as well, and is based on the HTML5 standard.

The real difference between web apps and local apps is the permission model on the local app is relaxed. It allows code to access local resources without user intervention.

The portable native client and the Chrome extensions are available to both Chrome locally installed apps (packaged apps) and Chrome web apps, and they are equivalent to plug-ins on other browsers.

The reason for the confusion is simple - Google has changed the names of Chrome Packaged Apps to just Chrome Apps, and Chrome Apps to Chrome Web Apps. 

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@brian_st I appreciate the perspective, thanks.

We're probably more in agreement on these things than you think. In fact, your point about the advantages of Chrome Apps are addressed in the story here: "The allure of Chrome, he said, is that users can work in the browser on multiple devices–Mac, PC or Chromebook–and have all their apps and data travel with them." In other words, it's all the more reason to use Chrome on all platforms.

I didn't mean to suggest that these apps are not based on web technologies, but it is precisely the "additional capabilities" that you mention for which "the Web falls short." I'll admit that I'm not well-versed on who's fighting for what Web standards, and the pros and cons of standardizing whatever it is that Google wants. But until all that's resolved, these Chrome Apps are going to have proprietary features--some of which developers may actually require in order to make their web apps in the first place. Again, we're in agreement that it's messy in the short term.