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Why Google Chromebook’s Success Depends Entirely on Apps

If Google thinks it’s made an end-run around the problems with its Android app store, it’s about to learn a tough lesson

Google’s new Chromebook, which is essentially a laptop that runs Google’s Chrome web browser and nothing else, is already catching the attention of industry and educators. But will it catch on with the wider public? The answer to that is straightforward: it all depends on whether or not Google can offer users a sufficiently rich ecosystem of “web apps” – since those are the only kind that run on a Chromebook.

It’s exactly the same problem that Google faces with adoption of its Android platform: its apps simply aren’t up to the standard of its primary competition. As the generally platform-agnostic tech uber-pundit Robert Scoble put it, “I have modern Android devices and I like iPhone more. Why? Apps are superior.”

At its price point, the Chromebook’s competition isn’t other PCs – it’s the iPad and its tens of thousands of apps.

Granted, it’s early days yet. Just as there was no iOS app ecosystem until Apple created a device that cried out for it, it’s hard to evaluate the potential of web apps in a world in which the Chromebook is not widespread. The hope is that a world full of Chromebooks will lead to an explosion of web apps, but it’s hard to see the value proposition for both users and developers being quite as epic as the one that comes with the iPhone and iTunes.

There is also a technology challenge: Open web standards make offline access to your web apps possible, in theory. In practice, not even Google has implemented offline versions of its most popular sites – Google Mail and Google Docs. Those are coming in June, we’re told, but how good will they be? How long will it take the “offline Google Mail in Google Chrome experience” to be on par with a good client-side mail application.

The web is full of hooks for programmers to latch into – APIs – precisely so that they can create desktop applications for accessing web services that are superior to the services themselves. This threatens vendors like Twitter, who have been cool on client-side apps in the past, and it probably threatens Google as well, in as much as the company is in an arms race between those who would access Gmail through the web and those who would prefer to hook into it via a traditional mail program (that doesn’t show Google’s ads).

If we’re lucky, we all come out of this with an entirely new class of applications: “Web Apps” that are only as dependent on the web as our current desktop applications are. In other words: web apps that store things locally so that we can access our information as quickly as possible, rather than waiting for a slow network to deliver our information to us. If the network’s congested, that shouldn’t be our problem; that’s what technology is for, to do our waiting for us.

The future of the Chromebook hinges on Google’s ability to convince web developers to use the browser to recreate functionality that already exists in mobile and desktop apps. It’s a funny proposition, when you think of it that way, but it just might work – if it turns out that developers can make money this way, or even shorten the amount of time and effort they have to spend coding.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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