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Several weeks ago, Google released the Google Chrome Store, and the industry at large scratched its head trying to figure out what the implications of the store would really be. Users have been exploring what’s popular and trying to determine the actual “apps” versus bookmarks to web-based tools they can use in any browser, and so on.
Is this Google’s crushing blow? Is this, along with the Android Market and the coming Chrome OS, Google’s big stand against Microsoft and Apple?
In short, no. What is special about the Chrome Store isn’t what runs in Chrome or what it’s doing for the browser or operating system landscape. Similar to many iPhone-specific websites, the Chrome store is unencumbered by backwards compatibility concerns and uninhibited by users that simply don’t or can’t upgrade.
As we build traditional websites and web apps, we concern ourselves with backwards compatibility and an uncontrolled or unpredictable end user environment. Sure, this is part of what makes the web unique and promises openness –any content is accessible anywhere, by any user on any system. Yet many of the apps on the Chrome web store are anything but. Some have been compared to their iPad counterparts, like the New York Times app, and the comparison is indeed a fair one.
The real point of the Chrome store lies in the implications of web development for tomorrow. Having a notice saying “this site best viewed in X” (in days past it was Netscape or Internet Explorer) is anathema to any developer with a conscience. I consider the Chrome store a preview of the future, and when you consider how close we are, it’s that much more fun.
This is a web that a lot of people don’t understand even can exist because they’ve never seen it, and since they won’t upgrade and we don’t make them, they’ll never see it.
The New York Times App is a great case study because it’s not just an app; it’s a fancy website. There are a few other pretty stand-out examples, certainly some that are more “applications” than content delivery, but this is one of the really good ones to prove my point.
So, what is the NYTimes app doing that’s so special? To get the full experience, “install” it into your copy of Chrome and run it full-screen. Use the help files to get around with the keyboard and try using the app without a network connection.
What you’ve got is pure “HTML5” goodness – in the broad sense of the term, of course. The technology under the hood is broad across the specs and a pure joy to pick apart:
The content blocks are laid out on screen in a grid based on the size of the user’s window, and rendered in locally downloaded and embedded font faces. You can select several different themes to display the content, including inverted colors and various fundamental different types of layout. Finally, you can jump around story to story and page between articles using the arrow keys.
The whole framework is saved locally using an offline application cache defined in a manifest file, and can be refreshed by updating that manifest file on the server. This, combined with that locally created SQL database, is what allows the whole thing to operate offline.
The NYTimes app is remarkably closer to browsing a newspaper than any website I’ve ever seen. Add to this the prospect of a touch user interface such as the iPad, and you can imagine where this is going. And yes, much of this will run in Safari on the iPad, not only inside Chrome on your PC.
Not to steal a cliche, but this is web development 2.0, my friends.