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Friday, September 6, 2013

Google Introduces New Desktop Apps

Even if Google is ready to live entirely online, everyone else might not be. 

To celebrate the Google Chrome browser’s fifth birthday on Thursday, the company expanded its ambitions in computing by introducing a new kind of Chrome app that runs offline and on other operating systems besides Google’s.

If trying to figure out what that means makes your head spin, you’re not alone.

Until now, Google’s Chrome Web apps worked only online. The new apps combine the best of online and offline apps, the company says, similar to the apps on a smartphone. For instance, they allow people to work without an Internet connection and plug in hardware like digital cameras. But since they are written in Web programming languages, they can sync across devices, back up to the cloud and receive automatic security updates.

So far, there are only a few such apps, like Pixlr Touch Up for photo editing and Wunderlist for to-do lists. But the development has important implications for the way we use computers and the way Google competes with rivals like Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft made a  similar move with Windows 8.

The surprising part is that Google’s Web apps now work not just on the company’s own Chromebooks, but also on Microsoft Windows machines and, soon, on Macs, as long as they have the Chrome browser.

For Google, it is a way to promote its own services even for people who use computers made by other companies or who have been turned off by the need for an Internet connection to use Google Web apps.

“It’s really increasing the competitiveness or the appeal of Google Apps for people who don’t want to pay for Microsoft Office,” said Frank E. Gillett, an analyst studying computing platforms at Forrester.

It is also an acknowledgment that Google’s dream of a world in which  everyone lives on the Web â€" always with an Internet connection and without desktop software, which Chromebooks do not have â€" is not a reality, at least not yet.

“It’s an admission that their original vision was over-simplistic,” Mr. Gillett said. “I agree with the notion that online cloud services are becoming an important part of the experience of using software. But where the Google guys got mixed up was the notion that it’ll all be inside this thing called the Web browser.”

Though Erik Kay, a Chrome engineering director at Google, said in a blog post that the company still believes in the Web, he said it also acknowledged that people need some of the functionality provided by software installed on devices.

Though low-end Chromebooks, which Google has shifted to marketing as a second computer just for Web access, have sold well, the Chromebook Pixel,  Google’s $1,300 laptop and MacBook competitor, is a hard sell because it has no hard drive or desktop software. The new Chrome apps could change that.

“Even though the P.C. market is in decline, the form factor isn’t going to disappear,” said Brian Blau, a research director at Gartner who studies consumer technology. “Google has a lot of goals in trying to get businesses and education and markets like that, and having the laptop form factor could be important for them.”

Google’s move seems mostly aimed at courting software developers, Mr. Blau said. Instead of being forced to choose among operating systems, they can just write apps for the Web that run on a variety of systems.

Google’s message to developers is, “This is one more reason that app developers should come and use Google products over their competitors,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”