Google has taken a new step to significantly expand what Web apps can do -- and thus also lend new muscle to its Chrome browser, Chrome OS browser-based operating system, and Chrome Web Store for finding and buying Web apps.
This week, Google released a new developer version of Chrome 22 that by default enables a technology called Chrome packaged apps.
"Packaged apps will no longer be tied to the browser," said Chrome team member Erik Kay in a video about Chrome packaged apps. "Rather than running as a tab inside of Chrome, packaged apps can be launched from outside of Chrome, have their own top-level windows, and generally behave like first-class apps on the operating system... The user shouldn't be aware your app was built with Web technologies."
The move is perhaps most notable for Chrome OS, which recently got the ability to show multiple resizeable browser windows. Chrome packaged apps would free apps from the browser frame altogether on Chrome OS, making it look more like an ordinary operating system that people are accustomed to.
The overall idea of Web apps, though, is more likely to get a warmer reception. Mozilla and Opera also are working on some technologies that give browsers access to computer resources such as cameras and accelerometers, for example. And Mozilla's Firefox OS attempts to bring Web apps to mobile phones in a way that parallels what Google is attempting with PCs and Chrome OS. (The technically curious now can try running Firefox OS on their PCs, by the way.)
Chrome packaged apps give programmers new tools a native app might need, including direct access to TCP/IP networking, USB devices, and Bluetooth networking. It's also got a programming interface for dealing with photos, videos, music, contacts, and other data that non-Web apps on a computer system might also use.
Some staples of Web programming are disabled, including Adobe Systems' Flash Player and the localStorage interface, one of several ways browsers can store data locally on a machine.
Chrome Web apps get powers regular Web apps don't get, said Chrome team member Adam Barth in an explanatory video about Chrome packaged apps security. As a result, the apps have some restrictions compared to ordinary Web apps, he said.
In addition, taking a page from the Android playbook, Chrome packaged apps explicitly require the user's permission for privileges such as getting access to a computer's videocamera.