December 20, 2010 at 4:06 pm

What the App Is Teaching the Browser

The browser is the latest app platform to attract attention with the launch of Google’s Chrome Web App Store; meanwhile, Apple’s Mac App Store represents another way in which apps –lightweight, cloud-connected software similar to that which runs on smartphones and tablets — have become a promising new model for computing in general, and the web browser, specifically.

Apps have already opened new options for music listening, creation and interaction on those mobile platforms. Now, they’re doing the same within the Google Chrome web browser as apps and extensions, rather than as web pages.

Only one line of code separates Google Apps from Google Extensions, Evolver.fm has learned (more below), while a perusal of the Google Web App Store reveals that the majority of “apps” included there are little more than bookmarks.

Nonetheless, the success of apps on smartphones has taught Google, Apple and others valuable lessons about what people want — and how much privacy they’re willing to concede to get it.

Dan Kantor, founder of the helpful Ex.fm (updated; the company is no longer called Extension.fm), which finds all of the music on the webpages you visit and plays them through a Chrome browser-based interface and checks Twitter for music shared by your friends, had a first row seat as Google’s Chrome browser has started to imitate its app-running smartphones. He explained to Evolver.fm,

Everyone sees the ease with which everyone out there is installing apps. Clearly the app – the idea of going to a central place, being able to search, browse, and rate apps, and click a single button to install, and have an icon that launches that experience – is a winner. Everyone agrees on that point. But on the web side, Chrome is all about websites and building new web technology, ‘the web is the future,’ and if you write something once it will run in any web browser. Browsers are becoming increasingly more powerful and mobile, which is the promise of HTML5.

The idea of a general purpose web browser performing such specific functions is somewhat of a contradiction at its core. Google’s giving it a shot anyway — an effort that included excluding extensions from the Chrome Web App ecosystem two weeks before Google launched its Chrome Web App Store.

According to Kantor, Ex.fm added a line of code that allowed its social, web-friendly music player extension to appear as a big icon when users open a new Chrome browser tab, the same way in which Chrome Web Apps appear. But Google changed the rules about two weeks ago, requiring extension developers to remove the icon-enabling code.

Google Extensions are not Google Apps by virtue of not being included in the Chrome Web App Store and because they don’t have big icons within Chrome. But both apps and extensions have learned key lessons from the world of iPhone and Android apps — namely, that people like icons and easy installation, even if that installation is just another form of bookmark. And they don’t mind giving up privacy or letting software monitor their habits, so long as they are asked clearly for permission up front, as Google learned by watching Microsoft try to negotiate similar territory on the desktop:

The Chrome Web Store is attempting to marry [the web and apps]… People are still going to build websites – but we’re going to make them in little packages that allow us to make it ‘installed’ with a nice icon that’s easily launched, and [Google] think[s] that’s combining the best of both worlds.

Permissions are allowing web apps to access location, deliver notifications, store a lot of data on the local hard disk, and more. Microsoft, historically, did not do a good job of clearly describing what [an] app is capable of  [on the desktop].

What [Google] realized was [that the problem would be solved] if they could, at the time when a user installs something, pop up just one dialogue that says ‘here’s what this app will be able to do.’ If you accept that, you’ve not only been informed about what it will be able to do, but you took one more step. There was one more time when you could have canceled out. You hit ‘okay,’ therefore this app has those permissions.”

Those permissions — in return for added features — make music web sites and other web-delivered services, be they apps or extensions, more powerful by adding the abilities to store data locally, watch what people listen to within their browsers, and send them real-time notifications. So long as you pay attention to those privacy warnings and act accordingly, this is all good where music fans are concerned.

Ultimately, the app’s inspiration of the web browser could have an unanticipated effect: the transition of app-like functionality from applications that have to be custom-made for each platform (Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, Symbian, etc.) to HTML5-enabled websites, accessible from any browser on a smartphone, desktop computer, tablet, and so on.

In other words, mobile apps’ success could sow the seeds of their downfall — where simpler apps are concerned, anyway — at the hands of the browser and web apps, with Google Chrome leading the charge.