How Chrome mobile apps could change the native discussion among developers

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Pop, Pop, Win! was developed as a demonstration application.

To experienced mobile gamers, Pop, Pop, Win! might look a little familiar. There is the basic square filled with green balloons at which players poke with a dart as quickly as possible. On some squares, a bomb is hidden. If you hit a bomb, you lose. 

In other words, it's a sort of modern Minesweeper, with just one telling difference: Pop, Pop, Win! is also a demonstration of what Google is trying to do with Chrome apps. 

Improving app performance
Earlier this year, Google announced a developer preview of a toolchain that would allow them to wrap a Chrome app (which had traditionally be limited to the desktop) within a native app shell. Based on open source mobile development framework Apache Cordova, the toolchain promised a way to distribute Chrome mobile apps via traditional app stores such as Google Play, or even Apple's App store for iOS devices. More recently, at its I/O conference in San Francisco, Google showed off how its investment in mobile Chrome apps was progressing. There, Google engineers suggested the company was creating an approach that could make hybrid apps--apps that combine elements of Web apps and native apps--more viable than developers tend to believe.

In a Google I/O session called "Chrome Apps on Android and iOS," for example, Google engineer Max Woghiren showed Pop, Pop, Win! as an example of how Google is working with Intel's CrossWalk open source project to improve the performance of Chrome apps. 

Max Woghiren


"One drawback of hybrid applications is that Webviews on older versions of Android can be a bit limited," Woghiren admitted in the I/O session, which has since been posted online. The CrossWalk Webview makes such apps "smooth as silk," he said, even if they run on versions such as Android Ice Cream Sandwich. "This wasn't possible a year ago."

Developers can use the Chrome Apps Developer Tool without installing an SDK or IDE to run an app on an Android device. At the same time, third-party providers of developer tools are already making moves to ease the transition of Chrome apps to mobile devices. Just as Google I/O 2014 ended, for instance, San Francisco-based HTML5 hybrid app development platform Monaca announced support for Chrome apps, which means developers could more tightly integrate their apps with the plug-ins that Google is providing. 

"There is no technical difference between a Cordovda PhoneGap application and a Chrome mobile app," Monaca CEO Masahiro Tanaka told FierceDeveloper. "This is really about increasing the point of sale [for an app] using Chrome to market it to other app stores."

Mark Wilcox Vision Mobile


Despite its obvious reliance on the Web, Google's move with Chrome apps might be pragmatic. In its most recent Developer Economics report, Vision Mobile suggested that developers are largely abandoning the browser for HTML5, despite ongoing concerns with the quality and reliability of hybrid apps. Chrome mobile apps are potentially one piece of the puzzle that needs to be put together to make hybrid apps competitive with native ones, said Mark Wilcox, a Vision Mobile analyst who co-authored the report. 

"One big plus is push notifications, but last time I checked, that was only supported on Android, not iOS," he said, referring to one of the features available via Google Chrome apps. "The other major win for developers is making it easier to support offline mode."

Enterprise vs. consumer
Don't necessarily expect the next Flappy Bird or Yo to make its debut as a Chrome mobile app, however. "My position is that we're much more likely to see hybrid web apps succeed in the enterprise market than for consumers," Wilcox said. "If you're making something that integrates with Google Apps for Businesses, then a Chrome mobile app could be a good approach."

Tanaka isn't as sure. He said Monaca has been conducting a series of workshops in Japan discussing the idea of using Chrome as a way to bring out the kind of social networking apps and mobile games that are particularly popular in Asia. In contrast, many early business Chrome apps are barely moving beyond offering a short cut to a website. 

"They are not really doing anything," he said. "Especially for the Monaca users, it's more likely going to be the individual developers that want to sell or introduce their product into the Chrome Apps Market who are a target at this moment... It may take more time before the enterprise adopts this technology."

Beyond what it has already announced, Wilcox said it may be worth paying attention to what Google plans to do with Material Design, the updated user interface for Android it launched at I/O. 

"If they really can get smooth 60fps animation performance and users accept this single design across platforms, then it could do a lot to close the gap with native," he said. "At least for apps that don't need deeper integration with the device capabilities or OS features."

For developers interested in Chrome mobile apps, a good starting point might be the backgrounder and forum Google has created on GitHub