New Chrome Apps take the Web out of the browser

Five years after it shook up the Web with its unexpected debut, Chrome gambles again as it takes the Web offline with its new "packaged apps."

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
3 min read
Pocket's popular read-it-later service is a Chrome App, too. Google

Looking at its history, Google's a betting company. On September 4, 1998, the company bet that the world would want a better search engine. On September 2, 2008, the company bet that people would want a better browser. And on Thursday, the company unveiled a new kind of Chrome App that bets that people want to use Web apps, sans browser.

Chrome Apps, known in development as Chrome Packaged Apps, allow Web developers to turn their sites into single-serving apps that function like more like apps and programs written in native code. The apps are currently available only on Chrome for Windows and Chromebooks running Chrome OS, with Mac and Linux support in the works. The Mac version is currently available on the Chrome Dev channel.

You can install Chrome Apps from the For your desktop section of the Chrome Web Store.

Until AM is an audio-mixing app with hooks to SoundCloud and Google Drive. Google

What's a Chrome App? "This is the way to deliver native apps for Chrome OS," said Erik Kay, Chrome's engineering director who's worked on the browser since before it launched.

Some of the more notable apps that are available include Pixlr Touch Up for lightweight photo editing; Wunderlist and Google Keep for to-do list management; and games like Spelunky and Tank Riders.

In many ways, Kay explained, the new apps are a mashup between native code and browser development.

The new apps are available offline, have access to lower-level system resources such as Bluetooth and USB, and can interact with digital cameras and other peripherals, which Web sites can't really do yet. The apps auto-update and leverage Chrome's sandboxing for security, offer syncing and in-app payments like cloud apps and mobile apps, and can display desktop notifications.

But developers are freed from the design constraints imposed by the browser, said Kay.

"[A Chrome App] has full control over its appearance, down to how it interacts with the system," he said. That means that developers aren't dependent on the browser's chrome, its interface, for how the app looks, and can develop apps that look more like mobile apps.

The Chrome Apps launcher and apps will work first on Windows and Chromebooks. Google

Chrome Web Apps, which are still available, were little more than "fancy bookmarks," Kay said.

"Hosted apps were a way to take an existing hosted Web site and wrap it up in a container, bundle some of the HTML5 permissions, and give it a big icon," he said. "At its core, it was still a Web site."

Despite initial launch restrictions, the plan is for the app to run wherever Chrome runs. The apps are portable, said Kay, and have a "much more seamless onboarding experience," he said. "It just works with whatever technologies work in Chrome, [such as] C++ or Native Client."

Uncertain future for Chrome Apps Google's not building Chrome Apps for Android just yet, although Kay did say that there are Android compatibility plans in the offing.

Chrome packaged apps are written with the same HTML, CSS, and JavaScript technologies as ordinary Web apps.
Chrome packaged apps are written with the same HTML, CSS, and JavaScript technologies as ordinary Web apps. Google

Android and iOS prevent apps from being embedded in other apps, said Kay, so the mechanisms that Chrome Apps use to run on desktops won't do.

"We're working with the Cordova project, the open source behind PhoneGap," he said. Google has been contributing to the project for about a year, including a Chrome Apps API layer. Even with PhoneGap support, Android functionality is a long way off, Kay said.

Also not happening anytime soon is multi-browser support. "Chrome Packaged Apps are specific to the Chrome runtime," he said. "There's other browsers that are working on similar things and over time they may standardize, but for now this is Chrome specific."

The Pixlr Chrome App breaks out of the typical browser interface to provide an image editor. Google

Chrome Apps represent an unusual, sometimes uncomfortable balancing act between the limits and benefits of the Web. When asked about people who criticize Chrome for encouraging a Chrome-centric view of the browser world, and how they'll respond to Chrome Apps, Kay strongly defended Chrome's position.

"Our intent has always been to be a good steward of the Web," he said, noting that Chrome's developers work closely with other browser vendors, including competitors at Mozilla, Microsoft, Apple, and Opera. "The difference with Chrome is that things are moving a lot faster, and the competition has been good, to make the Web a better place," he said.

But Chrome Apps appear to part ways with that goal. On its fifth anniversary of aggressively pushing for better Web standards across the spectrum through Chrome, Google is now also using the Web to build a walled garden within the Web.