Chrome OS: a new beginning for web apps?

Chrome OS: a new beginning for web apps?
Chrome OS could see web apps transformed

Google has finally announced full details of its web only Chrome OS. Whilst the response to the release date (mid 2011) was slightly muted, the general reaction has been a positive one.

At the same time Google announced the Chrome Web Store, a place to source and purchase web applications compatible only with the Chrome web browser.

Obviously the big idea here is for the store to become the main source of apps for Chrome OS users, in the same way the Apple App Store is the only place to go for new iOS software. But web applications aren't exactly new, so what does the Chrome Store, and Chrome OS, give us that is new?

First, let's look at the Chrome Store in isolation. Right now it is a slightly strange experience. 'Downloading' a web app seems to just add it to your Chrome start page, and er.. well that's about it.

Launching the app opens it in a new tab, and you interact with it just like any other website. Because that's exactly what it is: a website. For example, installing the 'Aviary Image Editor' from the Chrome store offers exactly the same experience as browsing directly the site, even in a different browser.

All change

Right now apps are written in HTML5 and JavaScript, current web standards, but that will change. Earlier this year Google released more details of its 'Native client' or NaCI for short.

This allows the Chrome browser to run x86 native code, allowing its hosted web apps to consist of more traditional code in addition to HTML and JavaScript.

This is Google's attempt to advance the cause and power of web apps, and allow them to offer an experience more akin to traditional desktop apps.

It will also make the offerings of the chrome app store much more enticing, as they begin to tempt us with features that standard websites can't match.

Enter Chrome OS

Which brings us onto Chrome OS, the real reason for the app store. Used from within the new browser-based operating system the store feels a much more natural experience. But what about the apps themselves?

It's currently a similar experience to just using the browser on another OS. Apps are accessible from a central 'app screen' but launch in the browser function pretty much like the vanilla web sites they basically are.

NaCI again has a huge role to play here in increasing the sophistication of the apps, but their integration with the OS will also be significant. Let us take Gmail, probably one of the more sophisticated web applications currently out there on the web, as an example of where web apps could be heading under Chrome OS.

Firstly, sophisticated offline access is an absolute must. Google previously had its own Gears plugin for offline access to its apps, but has been moving toward a HTML5 implementation for some time.

Chrome OS will allow you offline access to apps, but it remains to be seen if there will be offline access to individual files, like we are use to on current operating systems. In fact, it remains to be seen if we will be able to access a 'filestore' at all just yet, or whether files will only be accessible inside of their respective apps.

My guess would be Google Doc's slow transformation into an online hard disk will come into use here.

Secondly will the look and feel of apps develop? Will we see multiple windows inside one app, like Word's ability to handle multiple documents? Will people use a tab per app, or separate instances of Chrome? Will the 'instant' save feature of many apps completely remove any notion of 'saving' files? There are many metaphors in the traditional operating system that may not travel well with a web OS. System-wide cut and paste?

The humble web app feels relatively mature right now. However, I suspect that Chrome OS may show us that we are only at the beginning of a very exciting journey.