Google Chrome Apps: Honey, The Tablet Ate My Web Browser


After spending a few hours last night playing with the video-centric apps that launched in the Chrome Web Store yesterday, a few things float to the top of my mind. Foremost, the app model is trying to replace the Web site model. In developing this app store, Google is trying to advance its case that the browser really can be an operating system. If that is the case, then content providers can get the latitude to break free from the aesthetic and even technical constraints of the standard Web page and develop more discrete styles of delivery.

If the initial apps in the Chrome store look a lot like their tablet counterparts, that is not coincidental. The New York Times iteration on Chrome feels a lot like the latest revision of the iPad app. The content sections of the newspaper appear as oversized headline and lead blurbs on a page that swipes laterally. NYT is not including the multimedia section here that's part of the iPad app, but I imagine they will. The NYT app actually gives all Web app developers a peek at what is possible here in terms of customization. The app offers over a half dozen different styles of presenting the content, from newspaper like layouts to thumbnail image panes and slideshows. Sports Illustrated's Snapshot app is among the most visually striking offerings right now, as it fills the screen with its signature images. Although, again, this is another brand with loads of video content that chooses not to deploy it in this first pass at a Chrome app.

For now, most of the video providers who have released Chrome apps are playing it pretty safe and familiar when it comes to interfaces. Even Google's own YouTube app is just a shortcut to the standard home page. But Sony's Crackle does turn its Web page into a wall of thumbnail icons that swipe in and out of view. You can tab through the Movies. TV and Originals sections much more easily, and the feel is just more seamless than the site. Likewise, BrainPOP, which offers Flash video quizzes on a subscription basis to schools and families, has a neat, compact console that keeps the video playback and quizzing functions nicely integrated.

From a business model perspective, the Chrome App platform encourages and streamlines a paid content model for content providers. Google checkout is integrated with the system in much the same way we find it in Android. I was able to buy a module of Sports Illustrated content at 99-cents almost as easily as I might use an in-app purchase in an iPad or iPhone app. The betting seems to be that the model that worked better on mobile than on the Web will transfer back to the browser if we can just make it look and feel like an iPad.

In the larger sense, Google is not only trying to show how much can be done in the browser but also trying to get publishers and consumers out of the typical browser mindset. We will see a similar approach when Apple opens its Mac App Store in coming weeks. And it is hard to say whether the app on the Web approach will strike the user as much more than a browser shortcut or bookmark. The experiences are good in some of these apps, but how do publishers and consumers decide to opt for an app vs. a Web site? Do we want all of our content experiences to be discrete and uniquely immersive? Or does the browser-based approach (which imposes a certain sameness to sites) actually fit best with the mode in which we surf? Ultimately, the app model online is pointing to the total portability of the Web, where we will engage this content away from the desktop and in very different modes.

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