Talking tech since 2003

Today, Google launched Chrome Apps, a new kind of application that kind of runs half through your PC, and half through your Chrome web browser. A post on the Verge calls the new suite of apps a “Trojan Horse” that will allow Google to stealthily stake a claim on users through other companies’ operating systems, in effect creating an army of Chrome OS users who got there via Windows or OS X. While that may be the case someday, today it seems to me like Google has a great idea that may not go very far in the execution.

First, the basics. Currently only available for Windows PCs, a new category in the Chrome Web Store has appeared, filed under “For Your Desktop.” The applications downloaded from this collection can be accessed outside of the Chrome browser, whether you’re connected to the Internet or not. Furthermore, the new apps will live inside a launcher that sits on your taskbar, right next to other desktop apps like Word, Photoshop, or whatever you’ve pinned down there. The apps, and launcher, also have little tiles in the Windows 8 Start Menu, offering users as many activation options as they’d like—though, it should be mentioned, that launching one of this new breed of Chrome Apps will still open up via the Windows 7-style desktop.

Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, the Chrome Apps project manager with Google quoted in the Verge post, explains that this new subset of applications will offer software developers more opportunities to reach more users, since they’re “built using web technologies, but also with Chrome-specific code that means they won’t be able to run on other web browsers.”

Said Roy-Chowdhury:

“At the end of the day, developers have a choice — do I build a web app, do I build a native app, or do I build a Chrome App,” he says. “Building a different version of your app for each individual operating system takes time and gets expensive. So our hope is that, if you want to be on every platform, you’ll build a Chrome App because eventually, you’ll be able to run Chrome Apps everywhere.”

According to the post, Google’s looking to roll these apps out onto Apple’s OS X, and soon mobile operating systems as well. So if you’re not a Windows user and you want to see what all the fuss is about, give it a few weeks and you’ll get your chance.

So this all sounds great. But, also, confusing. Really confusing. And for Roy-Chowdhury, that’s part of…the idea?

“Users may not even fully grasp what it means to be a Chrome App, and that’s okay. We want Chrome Apps to be so good you don’t even realize it’s something different.”

To me, though, that’s a problem. Users don’t want to not understand why and how something’s different. Difference is the whole point–if I’m not getting something different, I have no reason to bother trying it. And not only is it not entirely clear just what, exactly, these apps are, but it’s also not really evident why I would ever want a Chrome App at all.

For example, the image at the top of this post was edited using Pixlr, an image-editing application available in the new Chrome Apps category. But I got the initial screengrab through Sketchbook Pro—a desktop app through and through. Both applications come from Autodesk, but the former wouldn’t let me take a screengrab in the first place. The only reason I bothered to use Pixlr at all was to test the app out. It worked fine for what it did, but again, the question I’m left with is why?

And that brings me back around to my earlier assertion: that Chrome Apps seem like a great idea, but I have a feeling they’ll fail to catch on because of the execution. To explain where I’m coming from, let’s think about two of Google’s other technological efforts. First, there’s Google Drive, an online, cloud-storage web-based application that provides almost-as-robust knock-offs of some of Microsoft’s most valuable apps. Can’t afford Office? Google has Documents, Spreadsheets, and Presentations, taking the place of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. These applications work great, and they’re ridiculously easy to access and understand. Best of all, they provide a free and relatively seamless replacement for what’s otherwise an expensive suite of applications.

On the other side, we’ve got Google+, the social networking app that was designed to trump Facebook in every way. The UI is beautiful, its photo-sharing is far superior to that of its rival, and most importantly, it allows users to connect with each other in more or less the same way that Facebook does. But no one uses it—because Facebook is already free. The effort to move over to Google+ from Facebook was too much for most users to bear, and the fact that their friends were content to stay where they were made Google+ into a veritable ghost town. I don’t doubt that Google could find a way to spur interest in it sometime in the future, but as of now, I’m content to stay where I am networking wise.

All of this is to say that Chrome Apps sounds cool, but I have little to no idea how or why anyone would bother with them. The concept itself is too abstract to grasp: they’re offline apps built using a web browser? At the very least, Google Drive makes sense because it’s entirely clear what it is: an online version of offline apps.

Moreover, based on what I saw in the Chrome Web Store today didn’t inspire me to pursue anything further. The majority of the applications available are programs I’ve already got in some form or another.

All this said, I’d love to be proven wrong. I’m hopeful that soon enough top developers will be making must-have apps for Chrome Desktop, and that I’ll be eating my words. But considering that most Chrome users probably don’t even know that there is a Chrome Web Store (I did not, and I’ve been using it for about three years now), I have my doubts that they’ll catch on.

But that’s just me. Maybe I’ve missed something. So what do you think?

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