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Chrome Apps Are Dead - Now What?

Apr 4, 2018 9:05:00 AM

shutterstock_260999591You’d better sit down for this.

Google has officially ended support for Chrome Apps on Windows, Mac, and Linux versions of the Chrome browser. The Chrome App store is no more.

Shocking, isn’t it? Try to contain your disappointment.

So Long, We Hardly Knew Ya

You can be excused if you responded to that news with “What are Chrome Apps?” You’d be, quite literally, part of the 99 percent. By Google’s estimate, only one percent of Windows, Mac, and Linux Chrome users ever installed a single Chrome App.

Chrome Apps were somewhat akin to mobile apps or the long-deprecated Windows Gadgets. They were small apps of varying utility that were downloaded, installed, and run only in the context of the Chrome browser.

Google pulled the plug on Chrome Apps, in short, because they were wildly unpopular. But why did people stay away in droves? This is pure speculation, based on no research at all, but it seems probable that they just didn’t fit users’ notions of what a browser is for, particularly on desktop platforms. Browsers are for browsing, dadgummit, not for running apps. If I want a world clock or metric converter, I’ll find one that installs on the desktop and doesn’t require me to launch Chrome just to run, and I can find it in my Start menu along with all my other apps.

Or I’ll just use an app on my phone.

Chrome Apps would make more sense if Chrome were the only thing anyone used on desktop or laptop computers, or where there’s less of a distinction between the browser and the OS. Chrome Apps would fit in nicely alongside cloud apps such as Google Docs. This explains why Google is still supporting Chrome Apps for Chrome OS.

Filling The, Um, “Void”

In the unlikely event that your world has turned upside-down with the demise of Chrome Apps, fear not: Google is now throwing its weight behind progressive web apps (PWAs). As mentioned in this blog recently, PWAs are server-side (i.e., web) apps that behave like native OS applications. To recap:

  • PWAs feature lightweight installations, with launch icons on the taskbar, Start menu, or home screen, depending on the platform.
  • They can run on their own, without having to launch a browser first.
  • They work the same regardless of platform.
  • Like a native application, they can access local resources, such as disk space and USB-attached devices, and can run in offline mode.

PWA is less a web standard on its own and more a collection of existing standards that combine to provide PWA functionality. Some major players are working to make it a de facto standard, if not an official one: Google (of course), Microsoft, Mozilla, and others. For its part, Google intends to enable PWA download capability in a Chrome update later this year.

Cross-Platform Convergence

This is all part of the movement, which seems suddenly to have gripped much of the software development world, towards platform-agnostic application development and delivery. By and large, this is a good thing: Developers have grown weary of developing and maintaining multiple versions of each app for different form factors, browsers, and operating systems. Software marketers want to broaden their markets beyond one or a few segments defined by platform. And users just want apps that look, work, and perform the same on their Apple phones, Windows laptops, Android tablets, and smart TVs.

Perhaps Google at one time had a vision in which everyone would use their Chrome browser, regardless of OS or form factor, for all of their computing needs, and all the storage and processing power would be in the cloud—specifically, in Google’s numerous data centers. This, too, would be a cross-platform utopia, albeit a Google-centric one: Just develop apps that work in Chrome and you’re done. Chrome Apps would have been a central component of this vision. For whatever reason, things didn’t turn out that way, as evidenced by the colossal failure of Chrome Apps to make any kind of impact in the market.

PWAs fill the need much better than Chrome by itself ever could, so it makes sense that Google would dump Chrome Apps in favor of supporting PWAs.

So don’t mourn the passing of Chrome Apps. Call it an experiment that never panned out, and look forward to a world of more flexible, capable cross-platform functionality.

Topics: App Development

Brian Geary

Written by Brian Geary

Brian is a true believer in the Agile process. He often assists the development process by performing the product owner role. In addition to his technical background, he is an experienced account manager with a background in design and marketing.

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