Four years ago, Google decided that its Chrome browser needed more than just the open web.
A new app store was born, called the Chrome Web Store, and it was supposed to herald new kinds of web-based applications that resembled the native apps you’d find on a tablet or laptop. The goal for Google was to build its own platform within Chrome on Windows PCs and Macs, and to lay the groundwork for the first Chromebooks, which run nothing but the Chrome browser and Chrome apps.
Jump ahead to the present, and the Chrome Web Store is not quite the web-app utopia that Google envisioned. It has its fair share of junk like any other app store, but Google has only added confusion by waffling on what a web app should be. While Chrome is still a fine browser, especially on a Chromebook, the idea of Chrome as a platform isn’t living up to its potential.
Look through the Chrome Web Store today, and you will find two very different types of apps.
The first type is barely distinguishable from links to external websites. While some of these apps can store data on your hard drive so that they can run without an internet connection, in day-to-day use they’re essentially bookmarks. These apps–which Google actually refers to as “websites”–make up the vast majority of options in the Chrome Web Store.
The other category is called “Chrome Apps,” or “packaged apps” as they’re known in the development world. These ones are much more powerful than regular websites. Chrome Apps can run in custom-sized windows, omitting the browser’s address bar and menu buttons. They can work with peripherals over USB and Bluetooth, and can directly interact with the files on your local hard drive. They can even serve notifications when the browser itself is closed.
Brian Peterson, a cofounder and lead engineer for Switch Communications, extols the virtues of packaged apps. Switch’s UberConference app offers Chrome-specific features like background notifications and high-definition audio, and when the company launched its Switch.co business calling system last year, it arrived on desktops exclusively as a Chrome app.
Still, Peterson notes that Switch.co’s uptake doesn’t come from discovery in the Chrome Web Store, as the software is aimed at Google Apps users who are likely to seek it out directly. “The Chrome Web Store is sort of useless for us,” he says. “People aren’t going to find your app, and no one uses Chrome apps just for being published in the Chrome Web Store.”
He also suggested that the store is too crowded, not just with websites that compete with full-blown apps, but with extensions and themes all living under the same roof. “I would completely separate it from extensions, themes, and websites, and make it just about apps,” Peterson says. “If it’s confusing to you and me, it’s probably confusing to most users.”
As if the Chrome Web Store didn’t have enough going on already, last year Google introduced another kind of app, called “App Runtime for Chrome.” This allows Android apps to run directly on Chrome OS laptops and desktops (but not on Chrome for Windows or Mac at the moment).
The idea is to give Android developers an easy path to the Chrome Web Store without having to build a web app from scratch, but the initiative (which is still in beta) hasn’t gotten too far. To date, only a handful of Android apps–including Evernote, Vine, Duolingo, and Sight Words–have made the jump to Chrome, and it’s not really clear why developers should repackage their Android apps if they already have fully functional websites. (Google points out that Vine’s Chrome app is currently the only way to record new videos on a laptop or desktop, but it seems like Vine could easily add this feature to its existing website, especially when there are third-party extensions that allow this already.)
From the user perspective, these apps only create more confusion. Search for “Evernote” in the Chrome Web Store, for instance, and you’ll see the Android app (with a big “not compatible” tag when viewed from Windows or Mac), the website, and third-party packaged apps, along with all kinds of official and unofficial extensions. It’s unclear why this is easier or better than just typing “evernote.com” into the address bar, or clicking a bookmark.
In fairness, a broken-app ecosystem isn’t as problematic for a web browser as it is for a smartphone or tablet. Chrome still has the open web to lean on, so you can use powerful services like Evernote, Office Online, and Slack without ever visiting the Chrome Web Store. But because packaged apps are so useful, it’s a shame that Google risks driving developers away from its cluttered storefront.
One of the first companies to launch a packaged app was Any.do, a popular task-management service that first launched on mobile devices. Omer Perchik, Any.do’s cofounder and CEO, describes the app as “very successful” and more popular than the standard web version that the company released later. But he says the web version is growing quickly, and if the company were to build a new app, it would probably skip the Chrome Web Store altogether.
“Currently, the vast majority of people don’t fully understand the concept of browser apps/extensions,” Perchik told Fast Company.
Both Perchik and Switch’s Peterson suggested that Google could do more to educate people on the benefits of Chrome apps. But I don’t think advertising and promotion is enough: Google also needs to subject the Chrome Web Store to a massive cleaning.
The company can start by throwing out the “website” class of Chrome apps. While some users might miss having these gussied-up bookmarks in the Chrome app launcher, the trade-off is worthwhile if it helps communicate the benefits of packaged apps and encourages more development. (And I don’t see why users shouldn’t be able to just add any website to the launcher, even from outside the store.)
As for Android apps, Google needs better reasons for developers to consider repackaging for Chrome. Supporting Windows and Mac would be a start, but perhaps Google can offer easier ways to sync data across devices, akin to the Handoff features that Apple now offers across iOS and OS X.
Until any of this happens, Chrome is just another browser, and Google’s goal with the Chrome Web Store will remain unfulfilled.