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BLOG: The new Chrome App Launcher: Google's backdoor into the offline world

Brad Chacos | July 23, 2013
It's a trap! The new Chrome App Launcher for Windows may look like a Googlefied Start Button, but that's what makes it so powerful.

On Friday, Google gave Windows users something that they've been pining for: A Start button. And even better than that, Google's version keeps you on the desktop and actually opens a pop-up menu full of programs, unlike the nerfed Start button that's slated to appear in the Windows 8.1 update.

No, Larry Page hasn't decided to jump into the crowded Windows Start button replacement arena. Instead, Google's engineers quietly dragged Chrome OS's App Launcher—the Googlefied equivalent of a Start button—over to Chrome for Windows today. The seemingly simple addition is a major step in Google's push to bring Web standards to walled gardens.

Big things in little packages
The Chrome App Launcher is exactly what you'd expect: A taskbar icon that lets you quick-launch Chrome browser apps, such as Gmail, the Play Store, Angry Birds, and yep, even Chrome itself. Simple, right? But the little launcher is a Trojan horse for much bigger ambitions—especially when paired with packaged Chrome apps.

chrome app launcher

Packaged apps are available now, but since Google has yet to highlight them in the Chrome Web Store, you might not be familiar with them. Packaged apps are programs built on the bones of the Chrome browser. They use traditional Web languages such as HTML5 and CSS, but they run as separate, standalone software that can also be used offline, unlike traditional browsers.

You could consider packaged apps to basically be desktop Web apps, as odd as that sounds.

"For quite some time, we've had a dichotomy between Web apps and native apps, and one of the things that sets them apart is the ability [for native apps] to be launched from the desktop and have a degree of persistence and independence from the browser," says Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research. "The availability of the Chrome App Launcher for Windows helps to further blur the line."

Hey, who put Chrome OS's Start button where my Windows Start button used to be? The apps without tiny arrows in their lower-left corner are all packaged apps.

With the arrival of packaged apps and the Chrome App Launcher, no longer will you need to connect to the Internet, open the Chrome browser, and launch the Web app you want to use. Now, there's a Web-app Start button right on your taskbar, and the packaged apps don't even require an Internet connection.

"Clearly, one of the missions of the whole Chrome initiative is to serve as an incentive for people to adopt HTML5 and create cross-platform or Web applications," says Rubin. "People want to interact with their Web apps as easily as they do with their desktop apps. Having the [Chrome App Launcher] available helps to ease the transition."


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