Google‘s Chrome browser has been mutating lately. With new “Chrome Apps” and an app launcher that sits directly on the Windows taskbar, it’s as if Chrome is trying to take command of the entire desktop.
From the looks of it, the “Metro” side of Windows 8 could be next on Google’s hit list. As The Verge discovered, Google is making big changes to the way Chrome’s Metro app works on Windows 8.1. In a few months, if you set Chrome as your default browser in Windows 8.1, it could be a lot like using a Chromebook.
You can see how this works now by installing the developer channel of Chrome. The modern-style app now has its own windowing system and a taskbar for quickly opening sites like Gmail, TweetDeck and Google Keep. A little app launcher sits in the bottom-left corner, just like it does on a Chromebook. The implication is clear: Chrome is supposed to serve the vast majority of your computing needs, so in most cases you’ll never have to leave the app and venture into wider world of Windows.
Let’s take a step back and explain how Windows 8 treats web browsers. As you may know, Windows 8 comes with both a traditional desktop and a new interface, known as “modern-style” or “Metro,” for touch-optimized apps. Web browsers can run in either of these modes, so you can have a traditional desktop browser along with one that’s better for touchscreens. However, Windows 8 only allows the default browser to run as a modern-style app. It’s a little confusing.
At the moment, the modern-style version of Chrome is atrocious. It’s just a full-screen version of desktop Chrome, with no real added value. If you’re on a touchscreen, you’re better off sticking with the desktop version of Chrome, and setting Internet Explorer as your default browser. That way, you can at least enjoy Microsoft‘s touch optimizations and multi-window features.
The version of Chrome that’s in the dev channel now is more subversive. Its menus and buttons aren’t any better for touchscreens, but as a full-screen program it becomes more like a self-contained operating system with its own taskbar and apps.
Why would you want that? For one thing, it’s simple in the same way that Chromebooks are: If you spend most of your computing time in a browser, it gets the surrounding clutter out of the way. But it also makes the modern side of Windows 8 more appealing for Chrome fans. With the new app, you can use a keyboard shortcut to launch a quick web search, or use the Windows 8 file picker for uploading files straight from SkyDrive or other apps. And if you want to snap a few apps side-by-side-by-side, having a separate Chrome app will free up room on the desktop for another application.
I wouldn’t recommend installing the dev channel of Chrome right now for any reason except satisfying your curiosity. In trying it myself, I ran into some bugs, including one that required a system restart when I tried to install a new Chrome App. Also, Google hasn’t optimized the app for Windows 8′s Snap feature, so if you Snap another app alongside Chrome, the browser window doesn’t resize accordingly.
Still, it’s an interesting sign of what’s to come. If the past update cycle for Chrome is any indication, the new Windows 8 app should reach the beta channel in about six weeks, and would become available to all users in about three months.