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What Are Google Chrome Packaged Apps?

With the recent release of new Wunderlist and Pocket apps in the Chrome Store, one question still lingers in many Chrome users’ minds: what exactly are packaged apps?

Pocket’s new app is a good example of some of the confusion between different app types and even between the Chrome team’s and the Web Store’s nomenclature. Searching for Pocket will bring up three separate but seemingly similar entries: one under Extensions, another under Websites, and the newest under Apps.

Confused Yet?

Confused yet?

Extensions are familiar to most users. Some extensions live as a popup in the menubar or modify pages that you visit and generally exist to extend Chrome’s functionality; e.g., the Pocket extension lets you save whatever page you’re browsing to read later and the Better History extension “improves” Chrome’s default history page.

“Websites” are a result of a recent shuffle that now primarily acts as a category for hosted apps; i.e., a glorified bookmark in the apps section of the New Tab Page that redirects you to a website. Hosted apps don’t have access to Chrome APIs (e.g., a hosted app can’t access your browser history) and are ideal when integration with Chrome isn’t needed. The “Pocket Website” hosted app, for example, doesn’t need access to your history or tabs.

The “Websites” category is also home to legacy packaged apps – like the Feedly or the Google Docs app – that haven’t been updated to take advantage of Chrome’s newer packaged app APIs but will continue to function.

Newer packaged apps like those created by Pocket and Wunderlist are simply called Apps in the Chrome Store. These apps are self-contained rather than bookmarks to externally hosted sites and give you access to a wealth of Chrome APIs that can use USB devices, display rich notifications, and even keep your computer from going to sleep.

Packaged App Advantages

Though most apps won’t have a need for keeping monitors from dimming or sending data to devices through a serial port, many packaged apps do benefit from one critical feature: offline functionality.

Pocket's hosted app (bottom left) and packaged app when offline.

Pocket’s hosted app (bottom left) and packaged app when offline.

Whilst reading articles offline has always been possible with Pocket’s mobile and desktop apps, the hosted app is simply a bookmark to the Pocket website. On the other hand, the packaged app is a self-contained package – much like Pocket’s own desktop app for OS X but running through Chrome and written in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Packaged apps (no shortcut icon) alongside legacy and hosted apps in OS X.

Chrome App Launcher in OS X.

Chrome OS is a good example of how these packaged apps – especially those with offline functionality – can seamlessly integrate into the desktop in the near future. Indeed, with the Chrome App Launcher coming to additional platforms, we’re starting to see just how far along Chrome is on the path to deeper desktop integration.

Extension, Hosted App, or Packaged App?

For developers, the vague lines between extensions and the two types of “web apps” can still be difficult to trace. Fortunately, the Chrome team have a simple flowchart to get you going in the right direction. The documentation also separates Chrome APIs available to extensions and packaged apps.

But don’t discount desktop apps just yet. Packaged apps are still limited by Chrome and its APIs. Global shortcuts, for example, are still unavailable to extensions and web apps, requiring desktop applications to provide media key support in the meantime. But Chrome is still evolving and APIs are getting more powerful with every release.

Have a useful packaged app to share or any lingering questions? Let us know in the comments.