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Flotato is a wildly clever way to get web apps on your Mac

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What is this new devilry?

I’ve been playing around with a new Mac app called Flotato, and it’s so much fun and so clever in the way it works that I wanted to share it. Flotato is a way to make little (or big) app windows for apps you might normally use in a browser tab. It’s lightweight and easy to use once you wrap your head around it, though it takes a minute to understand because it works differently from what you’re probably used to.

There’s a pretty good chance that a significant portion of the computing you do on your Mac happens inside web apps, probably in tabs. Tabs are great, but they’re also the worst. Operating systems have spent 30 years creating user interfaces that make it easier to launch and switch between apps, but a lot of that effort has been thrown away. Apps like Gmail, Google Calendar, Asana, Twitter, Feedly, and a whole host of others could end up lost in tiny pinned tabs.

The trick is to take these web apps and break them out into independent windows, sort of like bespoke web browsers for just one app. There have been many solutions for that over the years, including Fluid if you want to roll your own or Electron if a developer just wants to package all that up for you. But there are problems with those solutions. Electron, especially, has become the source of ire because it can add a lot of extra overhead beyond what a simple browser tab would do.

Now, there’s a new solution called Flotato. It pretty much does the same thing as those other apps, giving you a separate app window for each web app you want to use. But Flotato’s approach is so novel and ingenious, I think it’s worth a shot, even though it’s still early in its development.

When you launch Flotato, it shows you an array of possible web apps with a little button that says “get.” When you click that button, Flotato creates an app for that thing in your Applications folder. You open it, it opens the web app you chose, and you log in. It’s simple enough, but what it’s actually doing is kind of amazing.

To make a new Flotato app, you literally duplicate the Flotato app in the Mac’s Finder and rename that copy. So instead of using Flotato’s launcher, you can just make your own. When you open the app you’ve renamed, Flotato takes a guess at what webpage you want to open based on the app’s name, and it opens it. (You can manually set it in preferences if you need.) It’s just a super clever way to make new web apps, and it’s much simpler than other methods.

It also does some very neat things with the icons. First, it automatically sets the icon to something appropriate for each app, often a high-resolution favicon. For certain apps, it can automatically add badges for unread messages. Google Calendar gets switched to today’s date. If you like, you can set the app’s icon to be a live look at a custom cutout of the webpage itself (e.g., if you keep track of a stock or web traffic or something, that number can be visible in your dock).

Flotato windows are deliberately chrome-less — and I mean that in both the literal and metaphorical ways.

Literally, there’s no UI chrome. Even the little stoplight buttons are hidden by default. It makes the apps look like they’re floating (hence the name). You can set it to ask for desktop or mobile versions of a web app, which allows you to have really tiny, narrow windows for certain apps if you like.

Metaphorically, Flotato uses the Mac’s native WebKit engine, so, in theory, it should be much less onerous on your processor and RAM than Electron apps or, in some cases, Chrome tabs. There are a few extra software tricks on top of just using the OS’s rendering engine, but it’s still much lighter than Electron. Flotato’s developer Morten Just tells me that it’s faster because there are “no plugins, no bundled browser renderer, no javascript bridges, no bookmark background syncing, just a Webkit 2 webview with out-of-the-way customizations.”

Anecdotal tests show that “Flotato for Twitter [uses] just 10% of Chrome’s memory usage running the same app,” and apps like Trello can be much smaller in size. Just tells me that, in some cases, Flotato also uses the mobile version of pages, which can cut down on their resource use as well. My own anecdotal tests show Slack uses about half as much RAM in a Flotato window as it does in its Electron app.

As I mentioned, Flotato is fairly early in its development. I use multiple Google accounts, and the interaction between Flotato’s attempt to automatically set the URL by the app name and its cookie structure has caused some headaches for me. So, for example, I can’t log in to Feedly because it uses my personal Gmail for authentication while other Flotato apps use my work Gmail.

Recently, Chrome on the Mac brought back the ability to create a “shortcut” for a webpage or web app that could be opened as a “separate window.” In effect, it allows you to take the web apps you have in a tab and make them into a separate “app” on your Mac. You can find it under the three-dot menu under “More Tools.”

I’ve been using these Chrome apps a lot, but while they’re convenient, it’s debatable whether they’re really lighter than Electron apps. I haven’t tested Flotato to see if I want to make it my main way of using web apps. But after using it for a couple of weeks, I can see its potential.

Flotato is free if you create a few apps, then it’s $14.99 for a pro version that allows unlimited apps. If you have a bunch of stuff buried in tabs, it’s worth a quick look — if only because it’s super fun to play around with.