What Chrome’s new Install to Homescreen feature means for apps

by: Gary SimsOctober 4, 2013

Android web appsA few days ago, Google released a new beta version of the Chrome web browser (Beta 31) for Android. It contained a new feature that allows users to add web apps to a device’s homescreen. Web apps that are added to the homescreen work almost identically to native apps and appear full screen (without any menus or address bars from Chrome) and are even integrated into the Android task-switcher. Turning an HTML/CSS/Javascript web app into an installable app is just a case of adding a few lines of HTML, after which Chrome will automatically recognize that the app can be installed to the homescreen. Furthermore, with technologies like AppCache, well designed web apps will function even when an Internet connection is unavailable.

But why would Google add this feature now? There are already over 1 million apps in the Play Store, surely Google doesn’t want everyone to change to using web apps now? Or does it? The first thing you have to remember is that Google is an Internet company. It can’t make any money or provide any services unless you are connected to the Internet. Even a simple task like reading your email needs an Internet connection and Google is sure that ultimately everything will be cloud based.

Think about how the services that Google offer has encouraged all of us to migrate to the cloud. In the old days before Gmail, I used to download my email into an email client (like Outlook Express or Thunderbird). Without backups, a hardware failure would mean that I would lose all my data. Along came Gmail with its cloud based service and integrated search. Now all my email is out-there, somewhere in the ether. Then came Google Drive: since Google has helped me move my emails to the cloud, now I can move my documents. Then came Chrome OS. My emails and data are now in the cloud, what about the actual OS, is it possible? The high level of functionality provided by Chrome OS seems to say yes. So with emails, data, and the OS already in the cloud, what Google wants now is for all your apps to be in the cloud. In fact, services like Gmail and Google Docs already prove that you can have sophisticated web apps that rival their native counterparts in terms of functionality and ease-of-use.

Android was a bit different. Although it was cloud-centric, all the apps are actually written and deployed in a more traditional way, similar in many ways to software on desktops. In fact, there is even a native SDK for Android (the NDK) that allows games and apps not written in Java to be ported to Android. But the very existence of the NDK also shows that Android can’t yet get away from its hardware ties. Android runs on a variety of processor architectures including ARM, Intel and MIPS. For true compatibility, the Android SDK allows apps to support all three platforms. However, this isn’t a problem with Chrome OS which also runs on ARM and Intel. Since the apps in Chrome OS are web apps, the underlying processor is irrelevant. Google would love that to be true for Android.

It was only a little more than a year ago that Facebook abandoned the HTML 5 version of its mobile app and wrote a new native Facebook app in Java. At the time, Mark Zuckerberg stated that HTML 5 was “the biggest mistake we made as a company.” So if Facebook can’t make a decent web app, why do we think anyone else will?

It seems that HTML 5 and web apps are having a bit of a resurgence. The recently released Firefox OS only supports HTML 5 web apps, and Tizen is the same. Things have moved on since September 2012 when Facebook abandoned HTML 5, and maybe the technology is now more mature. One thing is sure, Firefox OS had HTML 5 web apps for Facebook and Twitter at launch and even games like Cut the Rope.

Since Firefox OS only supports HTML 5 apps, I went to the Firefox OS developers page and downloaded some of their demo apps. Because they are all written in platform neutral technologies like HTML, CSS and Javascript I wanted to see if a Firefox OS app could be easily ported to an Android web app. As you would expect, the answer is yes. I tried a few of the demo apps and by adding Google’s mandatory meta tags I was able to install the apps on my Android phone. For developers, this means that HTML 5 apps written for Firefox OS will work without much change on Android. I also had a quick look at Tizen, and essentially the same is true there as well. In fact, all of the demo apps provided for Tizen also have desktop Chrome versions.

This could mean that, in the future, a mobile app can be developed on one platform and released for all platforms, with Chrome serving as the glue needed to stick it all together.

Chrome web store - for your desktop

This move towards native-like web apps isn’t only coming to Android — it has already come to the desktop. The Chrome Store, which is the web browser equivalent to Google Play, already has a For Your Desktop section that contains apps which “run offline and outside the browser.” They are HTML 5 apps that use Chrome’s rendering abilities but appear like normal desktop programs.

What Google seems to be actually doing is testing the water to see if web apps can in fact become the norm, not only on Chrome OS and Android, but also on the desktop. If it succeeds, then the underlying operating system becomes less important and, ultimately, a user who embraces web apps will feel equally at home on any OS, including Linux or Chrome OS.

It also means that Google is taking the first step towards unifying Android and Chrome OS. The technology behind the two operating systems is very similar, both use Linux at their cores and both rely heavily on Chrome. The plan to unite the two has been around for a long time — back in 2009, Sergey Brin said that “Android and Chrome will likely converge over time.”

There may also be some political influences at work — earlier this year, Andy Rubin, the longtime Android team leader, was replaced by Sundar Pichai, who also heads up the Chrome and Chrome OS teams. Now with the same person responsible for both projects, it is only natural that the two become closer.

Things aren’t going to change overnight. Although Android is extremely successful and Chrome is the most popular web browser (with around a 40 to 50% share, depending on whom you ask), Chrome OS isn’t yet mainstream. Although increasingly popular and by no means a failed project, it is battling against the dominance of Windows and OS X. Windows is by far the most popular PC operating system (accounting for around 80 percent of all web traffic), while Chrome OS is very small at under 0.5 percent.

However, if Google plays its cards right, it could build on the Android branding using a “Android now on laptops” type approach. For that to happen though, it either needs to make Chrome OS compatible with Android’s Java apps or it needs to make Android work well with the same web apps as Chrome OS, or maybe even both!

What do you think? Should Google move quicker to merge Chrome OS and Android? Do you like the idea of web apps?

  • James White

    ChromeOS & Android will be the same product within 18 months. Its perfect for Google to merge the two (how im not sure). Web based operating system on your phone that gets auto updates = no fragmentation, reduced security problems etc, lower powered devices able to run it (like the notebooks that run ChromeOS) is perfect for cheaper devices and therefore emerging markets.

    Fits with Google’s operating model of web first.

    ChromeOS is a compelling product for a lot of user types. I only believe that Windows is still ahead as its entrenched in peoples psyche after having no real alternative for the last 20 years.

    • ConCal

      Android and Chrome OS will have some similarities in 18 months. But it won’t be the same product for another 3+ years. (Just my guess)

  • Reed

    I’ll leave android if it ever turns 100% cloud based. I’m sorry but that’s not even feasible. Get in your car and drive to a state park (after the shutdown) or, you know, just leave your WiFi drenched house. Even on AT&T in Maryland, there’s tons of places that don’t have access to the cloud, or its weak access. A lot of times I can’t get my Google play music to stream on the highway. Or, I don’t want to stream it, because, you know, I don’t have unlimited data. I guess these issues don’t bother Google much, since they don’t ever leave their campus or travel to other countries.

    • Harjifangki

      Well said Reed. Totally agree with you.
      Now unless we have fast, free, worldwide wifi access i think going full cloud based is stupid.

      • Reed

        If they’d like to add more integration with the cloud to Android, that’s fine. It only helps people. But like you said, its stupid to rework Android into being cloud based until we have worldwide WiFi coverage, or some other way to guarantee that we have access to the cloud wherever we are. It actually scares me to read articles like this that say cloud-based is the inevitable future of Android. Google wouldn’t be that short sighted… Would they?

      • Tochi Obudulu

        Project Loon

    • wezi427

      I agree. Cloud based services are nice, if you have access to it and have unlimited data. I switched from Apple to Android because it’s a better product. I will switch back to Apple if Google continues pushing the cloud.

      • Reed

        I’m in the same exact boat as you. I’ll switch back as well.

        • wezi427

          I just hope Apple doesn’t plan on doing the same. Then what do you do?

          • Reed

            I have no idea lol. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. But honestly, they don’t have a reason to push people to do that. They don’t make money off of internet use like Google does.

          • wezi427

            I’m all for the advancement of technology, but something’s get pushed that some (maybe the majority) of consumers don’t want or use. I think that when some companies do that, they push people away from the product. Cloud services are here to stay.

      • rabidhunter

        Don’t freak out here. Keep in mind that as the article states, some apps on the desktop version of the Chrome Browser run offline and apart from the browser. That means that your concern about not having unlimited data is unfounded.

        • Reed

          Then there’s no need to make the phone a “always on” phone if you can make all the apps “always off.”

      • SManTech

        There is no need for that, Google is going to support both worlds. You will be able to install and run all the existing android apps. But in the near future android will be able to install and run web apps with shortcuts to these apps on the home screen. If you want to try this out now on android. You can download the beta version of the chrome browser (version 31), and try it out for yourself.

    • rabidhunter

      I believe that you missed part of the article that says this.

      “This move towards native-like web apps isn’t only coming to Android — it has already come to the desktop. The Chrome Store, which is the web browser equivalent to Google Play, already has a For Your Desktop section that contains apps which “run offline and outside the browser.” They are HTML 5 apps that use Chrome’s rendering abilities but appear like normal desktop programs.”
      Note that the Chrome Store has apps which “run offline and outside the browser.” That means that Google has already thought of this and will allow apps to work on Android devices offline and outside the browser as well.
      Also, to be noted is that the process is far in the future. Maybe by that time, Google Balloons will have rolled out and will be everywhere. Who knows. But your major concern has been addressed.

      • Reed

        Addressed? Yes. A solution present? No. Firstly, this is for Chrome, not android. No one can say for sure if this will be how it works on android. Second, in your own quote, it says there’s a whole section dedicated to apps meant to run offline. I’m not even going to bother explaining why I think that shouldn’t even have to exist on a phone, or how annoying and needless it will be to have to sort through which apps will work offline and which won’t even turn on. Then, still, there’s the problem that saving apps to work offline is redundant and also finicky. Finicky because it requires an internet connection to make it work without a connection. Redundant because if you were going to make a cloud based phone that’s as reliable as a non cloud based phone, and you were going to do that by letting users save apps to be used offline, why the hell didn’t you just make a non cloud based phone? You’re accomplishing the same thing with a whole new level of complexity and stupidity that’s just not needed.

        This whole idea really needs to die off. Personally, I also prefer hardware. I like having my own physical storage. Do I like the cloud? I have 36 GB of photos in my dropbox because its nice to save my pictures there and view them anywhere. Do I want to rely on that cloud for everything else too?

        Hell no.

        • SManTech

          Buddy the direction for Google chrome is to be able to install and run web apps on any platform that the chrome browser runs on. So if you want to try out web apps on android. Rest assured Google is not getting rid of its android apps. Google does want its android users to have the best of both worlds. Android apps and web apps all running on the same device. If you want to try this now. All you have to do is follow the link.


    • Tore Julø

      I think you’re confused about the technology here.
      You need an internet connection to install an Android app – a web app is automatically “installed” when you visit it in the browser.
      Most of your Android apps will likely use data from the cloud, but they’ll still work with the data you already have when you’re offline.
      The same thing goes for a web app, since HTML5 makes it possible to store all assets (graphics, js files and data) locally on the device.

      There are plenty of apps for Chrome already, that doesn’t require you to be online to use it.

      • Reed

        Actually, I know quite a bit more about this then you suspect. Let’s say I’m very fluent in java, and my occupation is testament to that.

        Please stop linking me to the chrome page. I’m aware of its existence, and your post really came off as you calling me stupid. Let me rephrase my question.

        If world wide free Wi-Fi doesn’t exist, data is expensive and rarely unlimited, a vast majority of the world doesn’t even have access to the internet, and apps and music collections keep growing every larger, please tell me how forcing people to rely on the ever unreliable cloud world wide is something I should be excited for?

        I’m more then well aware of the offline apps for chrome. I’m also aware that you need to be online to download android apps… ( hey I’m typing this from my rooted note 2 running beanstalk 4.3 while at the gym! ;D)

        So if you’re offering to make the apps available offline, why did you even bother to change the phone to be entirely cloud based when you could just keep what already works and exists now, but just integrate the cloud a little more. Making a phone that’s cloud based only to then make all the apps available offline is more then a little redundant.

        • SManTech

          You stated before “I’ll leave android if it ever turns 100% cloud based”. Well rest assured that won’t be happening. Think about it for a moment. Google would be shooting itself in the foot if it did something like that. Google wants to marry the two. So you will have the best of both worlds on the one device. If you ever get a chance to try out chrome version 31 beta for android, you can now have web application shortcut icons added to a devices homescreen. Then have the web app launch in full screen. Pretty cool if I do say so ;-)

        • Kevin

          The actual OS won’t be cloud based, they just want native apps to become web apps… which as long as HTML5 can keep up with the performance (it can’t in my experience) then i’m all for… as a developer this will make mobile life a lot easier for me.

          A web app with offline support… ‘should’ be just as good as a native app, its more dependent on technologies such as a jquery mobile and sencha touch to prove that the transitions they have can run smooth!

    • Aron Tripp

      State Parks are OK, just stay away from the National Parks.

  • ziplock9000

    Its not new, its been part of Chrome for ages. Its just the location if the option that’s changed.

  • rabidhunter

    Okay, before everyone freaks out about not having unlimited data, read the article closely. Note that the Chrome Store has a For Your Desktop section that contains apps which “run offline and outside the browser.”
    This should ease your concerns.

  • jlninja

    Web aps are a waste of time. I live out west and half the time I have no signal. Until thats resolved I put nothing on a cloud and use no aps that require internet connection. Mountains aren’t going away anytime soon, so 100% cloud based means I move to another operating system

    • Tiago Azevedo

      Do you realize you can always access your content offline with this apps? Pocket for Google Chrome does it, for example.

  • ConCal

    Fantastic analysis! Im going to click on a few ads cause it was that great.

  • Gzint

    I have to take a slightly different tack.

    I love my Android tablet and phone, and would strongly consider an an Android laptop. But..

    I want 7″ and 10″ ChromeOS tablet for schools and other places where devices are shared between users. iOS and Android, even with profiles in 4,2+, just don’t really work for a device that anyone can pick up and use.

    On ChromeOS, when a student logs in, it’s their device. On an iPad or Android tablet, once it’s unlocked, they are “you” – whoever set up the device and unavoidably stored their credentials in email and other apps.

    • Tiago Azevedo

      Your comment are my sentiments exactly. It is because of that I believe Google is moving in this way, and I believe they even want to make Google Chrome OS an OS capable of running on other OS through the web browser.

  • Eric

    I believe that when the technology is ready and internet is even more accessible at high speeds, that a merge between Android and Chrome OS would be a fantastic move by Google. The biggest problem that I see with my friends and family is when they use so many dis-unified services. I see this as they move from their MS PC to their iPhone and then their Android tablet. There is a lot of frustration when there are apps that are not cross compatible. I guess on the flip side a person may not want to put all of their eggs in one basket but as I use Google services every single day of my life I would love to see the change.

  • kenyee

    No. Only webapps that don’t take advantage of a lot of Android features (e.g., swiping) can be used in a mobile browser…mobile browsers are comparatively slow vs. a desktop browser. You get a somewhat laggy experience if you run the same apps on mobile and desktop web browsers (I’ve tried the jQueryMobile and Sencha Touch frameworks). In a few more years, this probably won’t be the case, but that’s what it is now. Native Android apps will always be snappier because they’re closer to the hardware. Ditto iOS apps being snappier than Android because they’re compiled into machine code vs. the Dalvik translation w/ garbage collection.

  • markettantrik

    While this may be fine and dandy on the latest Krait 400 processor, many of the midrange and budget phones will have severe performance issues with non-native apps.

  • lil bit

    Im very interested in everything that is related to Firefox OS and its HTML5 apps, i hope that in less than 2 years there will be flagship phones running FF OS, then its bye bye Android for me. Im fed up with Google and ads and cloud and useless things they trying to force on us, and the writing on the wall will get clear soon enough, we have to accept ads in the Android core experience at one point, they are already preparing for it. Opps, did i say we have to accept it? No, not me, im switching OS instead as soon as a mature alternative is in place.

    • Tiago Azevedo

      Good luck, you’ll need it if you are expecting such a thing.

  • Badrudeen


    First of all – Add to homescreen is a functionality available already in ios safari. Does it means that Apple also planned for all-cloud? NO.

    Google have added it to android because they have tasted success with offline apps in desktop. I personally use chrome apps Keep & Pocket regularly. Awesome.

    Native & Hybrid Web Apps will always co-exist on mobile platforms. Which one will be chosen depends on the use case & type of features the app provides.

    So it’s not about Android. It’s a mobile paradigm shift which evolves over a technology’s lifecycle.

    • Tiago Azevedo

      Sorry, but I think you are mistaken. Google really plans to all-cloud everything, and I’m not against it. I even think it is good for users.

  • SManTech

    I can’t believe that so many people are afraid that Google is going to get rid of its Android apps. Rest assured that will never happen. But Google wants its users to be able to have more options. So for instance if you want to install and run web apps on Android. Now you can have the best of both worlds. You can now even install web app shortcuts on the android home screen. If users want to try this out. Then all you have to do is install the the chrome beta (version 31) on your android device. Next if you want to create web app shortcuts follow the link below: