Websites require a browser. Chrome Web Apps can run on their own, without a browser. Get ready to rethink software.
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Five years into the development of Google Chrome, Chrome Web Apps have broken free of the browser and landed on the desktop.
This escape has been several years in the making. Last year, at Google I/O 2012, Sundar Pichai, senior VP of Chrome and Apps, announced that Google was developing a way to package apps to run locally. Mozilla has been talking about its variant on the idea, Open Web Apps, since 2011.
"Today we're unveiling a new kind of Chrome App, which brings together the speed, security and flexibility of the modern Web with the powerful functionality previously only available with software installed on your devices," said Erik Kay, engineering director at Google, in a blog post.
Chrome Web Apps represent a familiar vision of utopia for developers: They promise the ability to write apps once and run them anywhere (at least anywhere there's a Web browser). It's a promise made previously by technologies like Java and Flash, among others, that has never quite turned out as well as advertised. It's a promise nearly withdrawn in 2010 by Apple co-founder and then CEO Steve Jobs, who dismissed cross-platform apps as subpar as his company proposed contractual rules on iOS developers that would have limited the ability of third-party developers to create iOS apps using cross-platform technology.
It may be different this time with Web technology. Despite the fact that some platform-level barriers remain — Chrome Web Apps have been released for Windows but are not yet ready for OS X and Linux, and mobile browser compatibility is a work in progress — Web technology is free and standardized (more or less). As a result, it's very appealing to developers, who don't have to pay for the opportunity to develop Web apps. Web developers don't entirely escape the oversight of a gatekeeper, Google, if they want to put their Web apps in the Chrome Web Store. But Google's approval process is automated and minimally restrictive in terms of policies. What's more, the Chrome Web Store takes the smallest cut of revenue of any major app store, 5%. The Amazon App Store, Google Play and the iTunes App Store all demand 30% of app revenue.
Yet Craig Walker, CEO of FireSpotter Labs, maker of UberConference, insists that being able to keep 95% of revenue rather than 70% wasn't really a major consideration. The fact that UberConference's Web app is offered for free may figure into that assessment, but Walker cited the development advantages of Chrome Web Apps.
"We think it's fantastic because we want to have a desktop app," he said in a phone interview, pointing to advantages such as real-time notifications that become problematic in browser tabs. "The absence of a packaged app play would have meant hiring developers to write native versions of our app for Windows, iOS, OS X and Android. It would just be such a pain." (Never mind the fact that there are already native Android and iOS versions of UberConference.)
Creating a Chrome Web app wasn't simply a matter of creating a manifest file and uploading the existing UberConference website code to the Chrome Web Store. Walker said the conversion process took about a month, because the goal was to make the app behave like a desktop app rather than a website. "It took some time to customize it, but it didn't take as much as it would to build a native app from scratch," he said.
The advantage to Web apps, Walker said, is that they're less susceptible to changes in desktop operating systems that force developers to rewrite their code. Walker said he thinks Chrome Web Apps will finally put the Web on equal footing with native platforms for most applications and will lure developers toward Web-based development. "It has so many benefits, particularly from a developer perspective, that it makes a lot of sense," he said.
It's likely to be a few more years before the Web becomes the preferred platform to develop graphically intensive apps like games, but for less computationally demanding business applications, packaged Web apps deserve careful consideration as an alternative to platform-specific software.