Packaged Apps - Chrome's bane?

The launch of packaged Chrome apps, which are basically standalone programs which use the Chrome browser as a backend runtime a la Adobe Air or even Flash, is an admission of defeat from Google. When Chrome OS was launched two years ago Google preached its cloudiness, how it was lightweight and required modest hardware to the point of not even needing on board storage as everything would be done, processed and even stored on the internet. Google has subsequently backtracked in every major update to the OS by adding a desktop with a Windows style taskbar and utilities such as a video player etc. By adding native software in the form of packaged apps it has now hit parity (at least in its potential) with and become more or less the same as Windows or OS X (or Linux, let’s not forget Linux). At this point the only potential benefit that Chrome OS offers in comparison to Windows is that its free (OS X courts a different, higher end segment of the market).

A hybrid approach

Chrome OS cannot match Windows massive library of millions of applications in the near term so Google is taking a carefully hedged bet by downplaying native software by calling them ‘based on web technologies, but with access to native resources’. It is also relying on the Chrome browser’s vast user base (it’s the first or third most used browser depending on whose data you follow) by enabling packaged apps for Windows and OS X users. In theory, this should mean that application developed for Chrome should work cross platform on any OS as long as its running chrome, thus considerably cutting down development costs and making deployment easier. Google is also relying on the fact that as long as it’s well integrated and efficient most user won’t be bothered whether it’s a ‘packaged’ app working through Chrome or a native Windows application.

Why its unlikely to work

Here’s the thing: Chrome isn’t the first to do this sort of thing by a long shot. Adobe Flash works in much the same way allowing web applications written specially for it to run on any device as long as flash is installed. Adobe Air does the same thing for ‘packaged’ native software. Heck, the ability to run platform agnostic (using the Java Virtual Machine) was even the founding principle behind Java, one of the most ubiquitous programming languages in the world. If there’s one thing common here it’s that a significant performance hit usually occurs. Playing Skyrim taxes my computer less than some flash games (okay a slight exaggeration but they’re close) and every one whose used Limewire (based on java – ‘twas very popular a few years ago till torrents took over) knows the general sluggishness that seems prevalent through Java based windows software. Gimmicky apps of the type shown in demos are well and good but the idea of AAA software such as Photoshop running this way is laughable. You might argue that at least on Chrome OS it would be fully native, and you’d be right. But the fact that all chrome apps must be able to run in windows risks becoming an Achilles heel for Chrome as a platform.