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Chrome turns five, gains new 'desktop apps'

Chocolate Factory's present is a rehash of site-specific browsers

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Google's Chrome browser has turned five, and the Chocolate Factory has given it and us the mutant offspring of site-specific browsers as a present.

Chrome's 2008 launch was marked by the publication of a comic book penned by comics deconstructor extraordinaire Scott McCloud. At the time of launch world+dog was fascinated by the comic, which was the kind of daring thing The Chocolate Factory did in those days when “Don't be Evil” was possible to take seriously.

Little did we all know at the time, but the author's name was a sneaky act of nominative determinism as Chrome has since morphed into an operating system that tries to do away with locally-stored data applications and instead favours the cloud. Or did favour the cloud, as Google has today announced what it's calling a “new” type of web application that runs in Chrome but gets its own Window and works better when devices are offline.

Google's being a bit naughty by saying this style of app is new, as they are not radically different from single-site browsers (SSBs) delivered by Mozilla's project Prism back in 2007 (the name was a good idea at the time) and Chrome's own “application shortcuts” feature. Then as now, SSBs allow a web app to be given its own discrete window that behaves like a conventional application, inasmuch as it gets its own process and appears when users ALT-TAB to bring a window to the foreground.

The “new” apps work online or offline, can happily save to Google Drive, sync saved content between devices and can be invoked from a new launcher. The latter piece of software is for Windows and Chromebooks only, which will irritate Mac users who have had to do without application shortcuts since Chrome's release (and have often wondered why they're excluded). Google now promises this new set of tools will be available for Apple users real soon now.

Another difference this time around is that third party apps from the Chrome Web Store can run in SSB mode.

Such quibbles should not distract from the fact Google has, in five years, gone from zero market share in desktop browsers to market leadership at over 30 per cent. Along the way it has won hundreds of millions of users, no mean feat when one considers Internet Explorer is installed on just about every PC sold and Chrome is nearly always a discretionary download. It has also proven rather more secure than its rivals, welcome news for all netizens.

History is yet to decide whether Chrome could have succeeded without Google's enormous reach into so many corners of the web, or if Chrome hastened the growth of that influence. One suspects future historians seeking to answer that question will spend more time reviewing the fate of Android than that of Google's new breed of applications. ®

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