The Google Chrome Web Store, which went live today, is a big gift to web developers: it's a marketplace, like Apple's iOS App Store and Google's Android Market, that lets developers put their apps in a place where users and buyers are likely to be looking for them. It also collects money on developers' behalves.
Unlike most of the apps for iOS or Android, developers don't really have to program a new app for the Google Web Store to get it into the market. Especially in this early stage of the store, many of the "apps" are nothing more than websites — just as free as the sites you get to by typing a URL, and in many cases just as unexciting.
But the store does give developers a new avenue to put their best web work into a well-organised market, and it also goads developers to work on building HTML5 apps for the web-centric Chrome OS netbooks, which are expected to arrive in mid-2011. Apps you buy in the Chrome Web Store will be waiting in your account if you should get one of those netbooks in the future.
While most of the apps currently in the Web Store are nothing more than web links, some, like the Gilt shopping app and the ESPN sports photo viewer, feel and run like actual installed apps of the iPad variety. Set Chrome up to run in full-screen mode and you'll not know the difference.
Google store a non-profit?
Google engineering director Linus Upson told me about a few of the things that set the Chrome Web Store apart from the other big web stores. First, he says, while the Chrome Store does collect a fee when it sells an app, Google does not aim to make its store a profit centre. "We collect only enough to cover our costs," Upson says. Also, there are several types of payments that Google can process for developers: upfront purchasing of an app, recurring subscription fees and in-app add-on purchases are all possible. The Store uses Google Checkout to handle billing. Developers can also put Google ads into their apps — that's where Google will make more of its money.
Since Chrome apps are really just web pages, they should be able to work in any contemporary browser. Indeed, some of the apps I tested, including the very slick New York Times app, worked fine in Firefox (Sports Illustrated and Gilt did not). But Chrome enables some functions that won't work in other browsers. In particular, you can't buy an app except in Chrome. And you cannot "install" an app, since the Chrome start page on which the store installs its icons doesn't have a standard programming interface. Upson did say, however, that Mozilla is working on an open standard for installing apps, and in conversation loosely implied that Google would either contribute to this effort or adopt its final spec.
Another big difference from Apple (and Microsoft) web stores: there's no pre-approval required to put an app in the store. There are guidelines, and Google may remove apps that violate these guidelines or that the community votes off the island, but basically, anyone can put anything online for at least a short while. This is how Google's Android Market works, as well.
Where's my cloud-based hard drive?
While Chrome (the browser and the operating system) is becoming an honest-to-goodness platform for apps, one thing it doesn't have, that no online vendor has yet sorted out, and that is core to every other mainstream desktop computer operating system, is a file system that developers can tap into. If you "install" a Chrome app, say one of the Aviary graphics-editing apps, and you want to operate on a file stored on another service, there is as yet no standard, accepted place where users or developers can park or transfer files. To get a file from one app to another, the apps have to talk directly, and the user has to approve app-to-app communication (via oAuth or direct log-in).
I hear the developers of online storage services (perhaps Facebook's Dropio team; or Dropbox) have been working on a system for this, but as Upson told me, "building a unified anything is hard, and in many cases counter-productive". Aviary's Michael Galpert says that, at the moment, setting up app-to-app communication for moving files around works acceptably well, but he is looking forward to a solution that's more consistent for users.
A real threat to the old model
Eric Schmidt said at today's launch of the Chrome Web Store that technologies have finally evolved to the point where a web-based framework — and web-focused hardware for it — is capable enough to be a workable productivity, social and entertainment platform for the majority of technology users, especially those whose computers run a browser layered on top of an operating system only to run online apps and access websites. We'll be getting Google's testbed Cr-48 notebooks in our hands this week and will evaluate the hardware and the OS to see if we have, finally, reached the point where we can kiss the old software-on-operating-system model goodbye.