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Summary:

Are you ready for Google to take over the desktop? You’d better be if you use Chrome. With it, Google is making a play to rule the computing world as a back door to a new app economy.

chromebook2012

If you’ve been paying attention lately, you’ll see the signs of a significant disruption in computing. No, I’m not talking about mobile: That disruption already happened and we’re in the midst of it playing out now as PC sales have become stagnant at best. Instead, it’s within the browser: Google Chrome is the harbinger of change and through it, Google has huge potential to change computing once again.

Chromebook PixelIn fact, I’d go so far as to say, within a year, many of you will be using a Chromebook. Before you roll your eyes, let me add one caveat: That Chromebook won’t be Google-designed hardware; instead it will be on the Mac, Windows or Linux machine you have at that time. So it won’t be a Google-built device like my Chromebook Pixel is.

Let’s step back and I’ll explain.

Chrome is widely installed and growing

When Google launched the Chrome browser in late 2008 for Windows, the idea behind it was to speed up your web experience. It took until May of 2010 for all three major operating systems to have a stable version of the browser. Since then, usage has grown tremendously. Looking at market share summaries from five sources (consolidated at Wikipedia), four of them show Chrome as the biggest market share in March, 2013. (Note: April’s numbers are missing one source, which is why I’ve pointed to March figures.)

March 2013 desktop browser share

If you follow browser share statistics — hey, we all need a hobby — this won’t surprise you. Chrome has continued to slowly grow its worldwide user base with rather steady progress. And there’s little reason to assume that trend will change any time soon. So what does that mean?

For many Chrome is just a browser. For others who use a Chromebox or Chromebook, like myself, it’s my full-time operating system. The general consensus is that Chrome OS, the platform used on these devices, can only browse the web and run either extensions and web apps; something any browser can do. Simply put, the general consensus is wrong and the signs are everywhere.

Let’s talk about Chrome apps

First, much time was spent at Google I/O on two key topics we featured on last week’s GigaOM Chrome Show podcast: Packaged Apps and Native Client apps. You can listen to the show for a full description by Google’s own Joe Marini, but I’ll summarize the concept here.

Packaged apps are written in HTML, JavaScript and CSS, just like a traditional website or web app. There’s one subtle difference though. These apps are “packaged” in a way that allows them to run outside of the Chrome browser on any device that has Chrome installed. And they can run when the user is offline. Google Keep is a perfect example of this. I use it as a to-do list outside of my browser, both online and offline. When I don’t have a connection, my data is saved locally and when I later connect to the web, Google Keep automatically syncs my data to the cloud.

Google Keep

Here’s an image from my Chromebook showing Google Keep outside of the browser. Note too, the notification message at the bottom right; Google has added these in the developer channel of Chrome, bringing even more desktop features to the environment.

Native client apps are similar in that they’re also packaged and they support offline access. There’s a key difference however: These apps are coded in their native programming languages — C or C++ for example — compiled and then embedded in HTML where they behave like standalone native apps. Google says there’s about a 5 percent overhead performance hit, so they’re not quite as fast as their native app counterparts.

Pixel gamingA good example of a native client app is a game I played on my Chromebook Pixel recently called Cracking Sands Racing The app, a port of a game for iOS and Android, was a 533 MB download to my Pixel and I played it outside of the browser. Even better, the support for a gamepad worked just fine as I used an Xbox 360 controller to play the game. Controls and graphics were responsive; no different overall that if I was playing a version of the game on a Mac or PC.

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s good for you since you have a Chromebook. What do I care?”

Chrome is a back door to the new app economy

Here’s the thing: Both Packaged Apps and Native Client apps work on any computer that has the Chrome browser installed. You remember: the browser that has the biggest market share. Even better, Google is working on Portable Native Client, which extends the native client app support to mobiles. Meanwhile, at Google I/O, the company said these apps can work on mobiles through Apache Cordova, a set of cross-platform APIs that support iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and more.

You can see where I’m going with this but lets take it a step further. Have you noticed that Google recently added the Chrome App Launcher to Microsoft Windows? It’s the same app launcher that’s native to Chrome OS. And Google is working on it for the Mac platform; it’s already in the developer channel for Chromium. And it’s sure to follow for Linux.

Chrome App Launcher Mac

Essentially, once you can run web, Packaged and Native Client apps on any device with the Chrome framework, you need an easy way to manage and launch them. Think of Chrome as a platform environment atop a platform. On my Pixel, Chrome runs over Linux. For you, Chrome may run on top of Windows or OS X. Both of those have their own program launchers but as developers expand the number of Chrome apps, you’ll use the Chrome App Launcher to access them.

By the way, in the launcher picture above, did you notice that CIRC doesn’t have the same little arrow as the other icons? That means it’s an app, not a web shortcut.

Wait, won’t the big platform players block this?

Along with the disruption of mobile devices, the physical media market has undergone changes too. We typically don’t buy apps on a disk to install them any longer. Instead, platforms are providing centralized applications stores that they maintain control over. The Mac App Store is a perfect example. Note that you can install apps from outside of the App Store, provided you allow for such actions in your security settings. Since these stores are controlled by the platform makers, won’t Apple, Microsoft and others try to keep Chrome apps from spreading to the desktop?

Chrome web storeThey can try but I don’t think they’ll succeed, except maybe on mobiles. If people find the apps compelling enough, they’ll be in an uproar for starters. But there’s another possible reason and I think it’s brilliant on Google’s part.

I noticed that when I downloaded Cracking Sands Racing, the video game I was able to play offline on my Pixel, the file had a .crx file extension. That may not look familiar to you, but I recognize it. It’s the same file extension Chrome uses for browser extensions. If that naming convention holds true, any company blocking Chrome app installations would also block Chrome extensions. How would the Chrome using community react to that? Not well.

What does your desktop look like a year from now?

As I alluded to at the beginning of this post, if you’re a Chrome user today, you’ll be more immersed in the Chrome ecosystem a year from now, even if you don’t have an “official” Chromebook. This all depends on how well Google pulls off its strategy to upend the desktop computing world, but so far, it seems to be on track.

Bear in mind the apps in this vision will be truly cross-platform as they’ll run on any Windows, Mac or Linux computer with Chrome installed. If it can get developers on board — and those I spoke with at Google I/O are ready to embrace the effort — Google will have a thriving desktop platform built on top of the platforms created by others. But it will be a desktop that’s far more agile, with new features added within days or weeks, not months or years.

Welcome to Chrome, my desktop today and your desktop of the future.

  1. Excellent post. This is true that Google Chrome is getting every thing in their pockets. They have been using different methods to check what people are using and they are offering many things to public so that public will use Google chrome. Google Chrome is light and easy to use as well.
    Google has been making new apps for Google chrome to make it effective.
    Thanks

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  2. I totally agree that this is Google’s plan for Chrome, and I’m glad to finally see someone write about it. I come across so many articles about Chrome OS that totally miss the point and it drives me nuts!

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  3. I don’t know if they are, but Microsoft and Apple should be worried by Chrome OS. As far as we know, they have nothing similar planned yet and Google is making steady progress. This is the future for desktops and laptops.

    Unlike Android, where Google rushed and let it get away from them a bit (i.e. with fragmentation and malware), Chrome is their baby. They are taking their time and doing it right, leveraging their web services ecosystem instead of hardware.

    Microsoft (who’s clueless) and Apple (who should know better) are busy grafting the mobile experience onto the desktop. They got distracted when mobile exploded. The state of HTML just wasn’t ready for mobile at the time, as Apple discovered, but that’s changing.

    Native may be where the money’s at now, but in the long run supporting those native apps will be a liability. Mobile is fast, simple, and reliable. People want those qualities (not mobile/touch interfaces) on their desktops and laptops too.

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    1. Yes, people are going to realize how expensive it is to maintain 4-5 versions of the same app and gradually switch over to HTML. It should happen very soon and Google looks to be in the correct track. I think Microsoft is realizing this and that is why there is much focus on IE10 now and they are at last making IE more main stream.

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      1. Microsoft won’t succeed, and the reason is this. If HTML5 wins, Microsoft loses because HTML5 is an open standard and inherently cross platform, and therefore wider adoption will kill Microsoft’s monopoly lock-in and without it Microsoft will not be able to compete with the leaner and more innovative companies in the market. For this reason Microsoft will not push HTML5 as a development platform although they will need to half heartedly support it in order to stay in a market where the Internet is increasingly important.

        As for gaining monopoly lock-in by proprietizing web standards as Microsoft wid in a previous era, I don’t think it is possible for Microsoft to do that any more, since although it may still be a desktop monopoly, Microsoft is a minority player when it comes to all devices

        http://thenextweb.com/mobile/2013/05/09/canalys-over-300m-smart-mobile-devices-shipped-in-q1-2013-59-5-android-19-3-ios-and-18-1-windows/ .

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  4. Thanks for the interesting post.
    I think your a little hasty with your assessment, a few questions I have after reading this are:

    - Are there potential security issues with running .crx files as stand alone apps?

    - Is this breaking the boundaries of the T&C’s that developers (including Google) agree to abide by to write applications for those platforms?

    - The fact that Google Apps are available freely outside of Chrome ecosystem & the competency of alternative modern browsers = Chrome could easily be replaced for majority of users without any disruption. So the prospect of being blocked by either Apple or MS shouldn’t be understated. Do you really think in 12 months developers are going to build enough Chrome only apps to force Apple or MS hand to not block it?

    But thanks for the insight into where things are going.

    Platforms on top of platforms just seem a little messy to me. Like the facebook home app on android. Just too much overhead for a regular user to deal with long term IMHO.

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    1. The platform on top of a platform thing is how Chrome will win. For now, people think they’re getting the benefits of both (native and web). Eventually, though, as people realize they’re doing everything inside Chrome anyway, the cost, bloat, updates, instability, and insecurity of the underlying platform becomes a big negative.

      Blocking wont happen. They are in denial, or ignorance. Microsoft has Office 365, but that’s about it, and Apple is doing nothing. They have no vision of a fully web-based system.

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    2. Security of web browser apps is much higher than for standalone apps, so there are there no potential security issues with running .crx files as stand alone apps if web security restrictions are maintained.

      HTML5 apps running as standalone web apps in Chrome have relaxed security permissions as compared to web browser apps, and these are in line with Mac OSX, Linux or Windows local apps. They are however more secure in the sense that sending connecting to remote websites is controlled by a manifest which tells the user and limits the app to the rights the program has to local data – a security feature that local Mac, Linux or Windows apps lack.

      Therefore, standalone Chrome apps ought to be safer, not less safe than for example Windows apps.

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    3. The open web technologies like HTML5 has always been a platform on top of a platform. Google has always been about webapplications and they are just extending Chrome to allow for other applications to run on it as well.

      Until mobile came along, it was starting to look like the web technologies might actually win in the long run. But HTML5 was a bit behind. Like almost any platform independent solution will always be. The ‘open web platform’ can still win in the long run, it will just take much longer again.

      Chrome could be an ally to the web, it still is currently. We don’t know how long. It all depends how many developers will create Chrome-only native-client applications (because let’s face it, no other will adopt native client).

      Even Microsoft is now doing Office 365, I haven’t looked closely. But from a far it looks like Microsoft is currently delivery web-applications with less and less Microsoft-specific extensions.

      Mozilla now has enscripten and asm.js, which allow people to compile C/C++ code and many other languages to Javascript-applications. These applications run something like 10 times faster than normal HTML5-applications. Close to native speed.

      A large part of performance depends on graphics and WebGL is solving that problem for applications like games. Or even the new Google Maps/Streetview. Even Microsoft said they would support DirectX-based WebGL in IE11.

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  5. Clever Cacique Wednesday, May 22, 2013

    Wonderful post….. I am a Chromebook user myself and I am having a great experience with Chrome OS. I agree with you that the desktop environment is fundamentally changing and your desktop will accessible anytime and anywhere. Being a part time GAE developer may make me a bit biased because I live in the Google cloud too much, but I believe this form of ubiquitous computing is trending and I am excited to see what is around the corner.

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  6. Reducing the platform it runs on to irrelevance will happen sooner or later. This will, as Marc Andreesson chirped 18 years ago, “reduce Windows to a set of poorly debugged device drivers”.

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  7. Kevin, I’m curious what timeline you see for Chrome OS adoption. I think they’re playing a very long game. Really, the roots of this strategy go all the way back to the first Google Apps (pre-dating Chrome). Back then, there was talk of them challenging Microsoft for office productivity apps. That seemed to stall as they scrambled to take on Apple in mobile and Facebook in social, but now they’re advancing on multiple fronts. I don’t see Android and Chrome merging either. I think they are separate but integrated strategies.

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  8. If I were I able to run Photoshop on a Chrome book, I’d be all for it.

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    1. If Adobe is smart and gets their act together, you will be able to run it in Chrome. Others will need to follow – kicking and screaming maybe, but hopefully not?!

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    2. Jim Griffin Friday, May 24, 2013

      Check out Pixlr Editor in the Chrome Web Store. It reminds me a lot of Photoshop (or at least Photoshop Elements, which is what I have used primarily). Give it a try… I hope it offers enough as an alternative for now, until Adobe builds a Chrome OS version.

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      1. great info, thanks!

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    3. Nick Zambora Friday, May 31, 2013

      Kevin wrote about it here – gigaom.com/2013/04/10/smile-photographers-pics-io-delivers-raw-photo-edits-in-the-browser/
      And BTW those guys appeared on TechCrunch and CNET today.

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  9. Great piece and I completely agree that Chrome, rather than ChromeOS, is the way for Google. Hence, they are now only focusing on three platforms – iOS and Android on mobile and Chrome everywhere else. All their products support these three eventually.

    One question that nobody seems to be asking: why are these packaged apps limited to Chrome? I mean, I understand from a Google perspective they want to keep it within their products but if these are HTML/CSS/JS apps, shouldn’t they be executable on any modern web browser? What’s the technical limitation/quirk that ties these apps only to Chrome?

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    1. Afaik they’re not, the spec for native client is public and I’ve read recently that Firefox will support it.

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      1. That is not native client. I really doubt Mozilla would ever support anything else but applications build based on web technologies.

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    2. Mozilla is indeed supporting Packaged Apps and I asked (on our podcast last week) if Google was working them or duplicating effort. The answer was “we have discussions” so it is two distinct but very similar efforts.

      More info: https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/Apps/Packaged_apps

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      1. PhoneGap Build and others are also providing ways to create packaged HTML5 apps. There are still a lot of deficiencies, but Google is pushing hard on eliminating those via Chrome and ChromeOS, as is Mozilla via their FireFox OS and Intel/Samsung via Tizen. All of these platforms are driving HTML5 towards full-fledged installable application status.

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      2. Adobe’s PhoneGap Build service is an attempt at providing universal packaged apps based on HTML5 for multiple platforms. Other similar services also exist (from Tiggzi, Intel (former appMobi tool), etc.).

        Google Chrome and ChromeOS, Mozilla FireFox OS and Samsung/Intel Tizen are all examples of platforms that support HTML5 packaged apps — that is, HTML5 applications that can be bundled and installed and run directly on the platform. If the CRX is pure JavaScript, HTML and CSS it is usually not too hard to also package it for these other platforms.

        There are still deficiencies in all of these platforms that may make some HTML5 apps feel like they are second-class citizens, but these issues are quickly being addressed.

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      3. So, could a Chrome packaged app be executable on Firefox (or gasp, IE 11)? If not, what is the limitation? And yes, I am talking about the HTML apps, not the NaCl ones, which understandably may not be “standards-based”.

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        1. The only limitations I can think of is a difference in supporting HTML standards or hardware APIs. They should work on both browsers. I’ll have to dig a little deeper into Mozilla’s efforts and see.

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  10. So, Chrome is the new windows? :-)
    Hopefully, they do a better job than MS did in the past, regarding patching, updates, security fixes, function enhancement, stability -you name it.
    Personally, i like Chrome very much, because its a very fast browser – though, i do not use it because of the plugins i hvae for firefox :-)

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