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?
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.