Google doesn't know what an "app" is

Barry Collins
3 Feb 2011

Words are frequently abused in the tech industry. There are “hacks” that involve zero hacking, “downloads” when people mean uploads, “viruses” used to refer to anything faintly malicious on a computer.

Yet, the one that’s been so wildly abused that it deserves a sugary cup of tea and its own counsellor is the word “app”.

Until the iPhone came along, the word "application" largely meant a self-contained piece of software installed on a PC or Mac. Then Apple took ownership, trimmed it to three letters, and within months the word "app" became synonymous with small widgets of code for smartphones. Now, Google’s pushing the boundaries of the “app” definition even further.

Google Chrome users will have seen a new addition to their browser recently: the Chrome Web Store. Here, you’ll find dozens of “apps” to install and run directly from a handy icon on the browser’s home screen.

Except, these aren’t “apps” at all. They’re websites.

“Install” the astronomy app Planetarium, for example, and your browser is merely redirected to the Planetarium website. You can copy that URL and paste it into Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari and you get exactly the same experience. Google’s idea of “apps” are what we quaintly referred to in the good old days as “bookmarks”.

True, there are some “apps” that have been specifically redesigned for Chrome – presumably in advance of Chrome OS’s arrival on netbooks. For example, the smart-looking New York Times app, that looks much more accessible for small-screen readers than the newspaper’s website. But why restrict these to Chrome? That URL works on any netbook, in any browser. Is Google paying these companies to promote these sites as “Chrome apps”, perhaps?

I’ve even managed to write my own Chrome app in my lunch break, based on the PC Pro A List. I won’t pretend it was a gargantuan feat of coding: a few judicious edits of Google’s sample manifest file, and a little help from PC Pro’s art team to resize our logo to suit Google’s guidelines, and voila! A PC Pro A List app running in my web browser.

I’d upload it to the Chrome Web Store if I didn’t have to go through Google’s rather complex procedures to prove I run and pay $5 for the privilege. That and deal with the crushing disappointment of PC Pro readers who see our “app” in the store, then realise it simply points to the A List section of our website.

Yes, Google does offer the opportunity to create “packaged apps”, with content that can be run when the browser’s offline, but trying to pass off bookmarks as “apps” is a little too close to snake oil for my liking.

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