Last week Pocketnow’s Stephen Schenck talked about Chrome apps, and Google’s plans to bring them to iOS and Android. As Stephen says, “a lot of users probably think this is great news. Me, I don’t care for it.” He’s not alone. The points he brings up are entirely valid — and completely miss the point.
Let’s talk about apps
Before we get into all that, let’s take a moment to talk about apps, shall we? “Apps” used to be called “programs” or “applications”. They still are, of course, but apparently those words are too lengthy for us to say any more. “Apps” just sounds sexy, I suppose. For the purpose of this article, we’ll use these three words interchangeably, though there are some subtle differences that are becoming less relevant as time goes on and technologies progress.
Traditional programs are built using a software development tool like Eclipse or Visual Studio. These are Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) which let developers (“programmers”) write their programs using whatever code they want — as long as it can be compiled to run on whichever platform they’re targeting. Desktop apps are written this way. Mobile apps are written this way. They’re typically not interchangeable with each other because each environment is unique.
The web is different
Being a web developer by day (and a Pocketnow contributor by night) I am painfully aware of the limitations that traditional web development entails. For the most part, developers must write their sites with the “least common denominator” in mind. In many cases that’s still Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 — which isn’t very technologically advanced by today’s standards.
Google hopes to take that type of app even further: Chrome Apps. Put simply, Chrome Apps are web applications that feature tighter integration with the Chrome browser, and can emulate desktop-style applications. The catch? They run in a web browser. The advantage? That web browser can run on a wide variety of platforms and a whole bunch of devices. This, as Stephen points out, is one way developers are moving toward “cross-platform unification, like we’ve been hoping to see between Windows RT and Windows Phone 8″.
That’s the point
Sounds great, right? It is! Unfortunately, as Stephen also points out, ” “Chrome apps were never that great to begin with”. These apps don’t offer any features that make them “markedly better than native apps” — except for the fact that they can run virtually anywhere.
If you have played Plants vs. Zombies or Angry birds in your web browser, you’ll notice that they’re almost identical to their “native app” version. They’re supposed to be. They’re not intended to do anything “more” than a native version of the app, but they shouldn’t do anything “less” than that app either. That’s where the holdup has been.
While the web continues to evolve, using it as a platform for these apps has been difficult. Using the web as a platform through which data is delivered to native apps, however, has worked out great! All we need now is for the user experience to catch up. Chrome apps are the way to do that.
Stephen is right. Chrome apps aren’t quite “there” yet. But they’re getting close. Before long we’ll see developers writing once (for the web) and building a native app “wrapper” around them for iOS, Android, and others. They’ll work off-line, just like a native app. They’ll be updated instantly, just like a web app. And the killer feature? They’ll run anywhere: desktop, tablet, or smartphone; iOS, Android, or Windows Phone.
Sure, you could buy your apps through whatever app store you prefer, but why would you want to if you could get one version that runs everywhere and likely costs significantly less than your “native” app store charges for it. Even if the price is the same for you, more money would stay with the developer, which should result in better apps. And that’s never a bad thing.