Why Chrome Apps Are a Bad Idea

The stable version of Google Chrome now supports something Google refers to as “desktop apps,” and people are already claiming it’s the next big thing. Except…

It isn’t.

Here’s the tweet that inspired this post.

I know I love to rail on web apps at every chance I get, but one of the major problems with web apps (besides the whole not available offline thing, which Google has actually solved, apparently) is really a problem with cross-platform apps in general. They feel native nowhere. So the biggest remaining problem with Chrome apps is the same one that plagues Java apps. They look horrible on any OS. The dream of effortless cross-platform apps needs to stay just that, a dream. Something has to be sacrificed, and often that sacrifice is the app’s native feel. I’m actually quite surprised chosafine would support cross-platform anything, since on the same day as the Chrome announcement, he also tweeted a complaint about an Android app that looked like a quick and dirty iOS port. This is the experience Chrome apps would leave us with.

 

Google Keep, running on Windows 8

Google Keep, running on OS X 10.9

Notice it doesn’t have the look and feel of a Windows app, but that of Gmail. Maybe it’d look in-place on ChromeOS, but on Windows and OS X, it obviously doesn’t. People want apps that look native on their platform of choice. Chrome apps just don’t offer this (that said, I was admittedly a little impressed that it at least did feel like a “desktop app,” just not like a Windows or OS X app). If you’ve ever used JDownloader, you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about. It does the job, but it looks awful.

Back to chosafine’s tweet, in reference to the idea that Windows and OS X are somehow lagging behind as operating systems, and that this will somehow hand a victory to Chrome apps. It won’t. Neither party has abandoned the desktop. OS X 10.9 adds tabbed Finder windows, and Windows 8 had an assortment of enhancements on the desktop end, including detailed file operation windows and Ribbon-adorned Explorer windows. And, most importantly, native apps for either platform, when done well, still look native on that platform. There’s nothing a Chrome app can do that a native app can’t. And while Google claims to be bridging this gap, there’s quite a few things native apps can do that Chrome apps can’t.

And a little off-topic I suppose, since Windows 8.1 kind of does this too (but at least there’s a way around it – disconnect from the network while setting up), but I don’t like being tied into a cloud account. With ChromeOS and/or Chrome apps, there’s no way around that (nor is there with Metro apps, but at least there’s still desktop apps).

I haven’t even mentioned the biggest flaw in the Chrome ecosystem yet (note, I’m just criticizing Chrome as an app platform and as an OS; it’s a wonderful browser and currently my browser of choice when on Windows). What might that be?

It won’t ever have any apps.

This is the same reason desktop Linux never took off. Nobody wants another platform to develop for. Let’s take Adobe for example. Their Creative Suite… uh, Creative Cloud (once again, an idea that bugs me, but at least it was cracked on day one… ) runs on both Windows and Mac OS X. That reaches pretty much 99% of the desktop market. Except Linux users, who either use a FOSS alternative like Gimp, or run the Windows version in something like Wine. And I highly doubt Adobe cares enough about offering a solution to those users that they’d bother to rewrite Photoshop and the like as a Chrome app. Especially considering it’d be no more native than the Wine solution. Oh, and it’d be able to run on Chromebooks. But what Chromebook is powerful enough to run stuff like Adobe’s professional apps anyway? Even the Pixel struggles with simple tasks like playing video. And may I remind you that the Pixel costs a lot more than my aging MacBook Air, which can play video and run Photoshop just fine? So yeah… not really Adobe’s target market there.

Then there’s also Microsoft Office. Once again, has versions for both Windows and OS X. What would Microsoft have to gain by offering their product as a Chrome app? Pretty much nothing. Their product is already available to everyone, aside from a few thousand users. And please don’t tell me “But… Google Docs!” If you’ve ever had to do anything beyond typing a letter (and it’s 2013… who still does that?), you’ll know Google Docs is a joke.

If Google’s endgame here is to get people to buy Chromebooks, it won’t happen. There’s a chicken and egg problem at play (the same reason Windows Phone’s app ecosystem will never reach critical mass). Nobody develops for it because it has no users, and it has no users because nobody develops for it.

And finally (this isn’t so much a problem as a thought), hasn’t Chrome kind of fallen far from its original mission? Wasn’t the idea to make a simple browser to compete with the everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink Firefox? Granted I appreciate the fact that Chrome has extensions now (I remember the days when it didn’t), and I personally use an ad blocker and Grooveshark downloader, both of which make my experience much better, but aren’t apps a bit too far? If you notice, both of the extensions I use are somehow relevant to browsing. These apps aren’t. I dunno… am I old-fashioned for thinking a web browser should still be a web browser? It seems that nowadays, it’s Chrome that’s the king of bloat, not Firefox.

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