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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.

  • Matthew Withers

    When are packaged apps coming to Chrome for Linux …assuming they are? Nice clarification article though, thanks!

    • Sam Tran

      Packaged apps are available in the dev channel on Linux, so it’s well on its way!

      • Matthew Withers

        Ah brilliant – thanks for the info.

        • Kenny Strawn

          Whether it’s Linux, Chrome OS, Windows or Mac, regardless, they’re Dev Channel only at the moment. Well, unless you actually have the hard URLs to the packaged apps, that is; then you should be able to install them without having to look for them in the Web Store.

  • Phil Oakley

    I really wish Google would separate out packaged apps and websites on the new tab screen (on Windows, Linux and OS X). Websites go into the Apps category, even though on the Web Store they’re not apps. Very very confusing for users; plus there’s no way to differentiate them.

    • http://aidan.info.tm/ Aidan Cheddar

      Well, it was on the drawing board for a while. Don’t know the present status, though.

    • Kenny Strawn

      Would actually consider it to be a great idea — since they now have a dedicated app launcher — to put packaged apps that are powerful enough to open outside the browser in the app launcher and leave Websites on the New Tab Page. Would definitely be a very good way to help separate them.

      With that being said, however, in that dedicated app launcher there is at least some distinction: hosted apps, i.e. “websites”, have Windows-like shortcut arrows above their icons, whereas packaged apps don’t. On platforms besides Chrome OS, that is (although for a brief Dev Channel moment I did see them on this ZGB I’m typing on), since at the moment the Windows-like shortcut arrows would be above 90% of Chrome OS apps.

  • Karl Zinom

    while I like the idea of webapps becoming more and more desktop like apps, I do not like the idea of google becoming more and more the provider of underlying technology for those apps on all Operating Systems.

    As far as I am concerned google can and will shut down services if they are not profitable (while mostly everything is free of cost for the user, google get their revenue by selling what the know about the user: Behaviour and Preference). So I see huge privacy concerns and an huge insecurity towards the future use of those “google” apps and chrome APIs.

    • Kenny Strawn

      Not only is most everything server-side free of cost for the user, but 99.99999% of any source code from Google that is translated to machine code with a compiler instead of interpreted by a layout and/or JavaScript engine is out in the open. Compare that to Apple and Microsoft, who open up maybe 10% of their source code at most.

      Now yes, there may be privacy concerns related to selling content from users to target ads, but that’s a good trade-off, because I would much rather see, for example, Ubuntu/Fedora/Mint ads than Micro$oft ones. It’s the same functionality that also makes such powerful features as… ahem… Google Now possible.

      • Karl Zinom

        YOu underestimate the Fact that “money rules the world”… Just because Google does much “open-Source” doesn’t mean they are less evil. They just know how to get volunteers and wide acceptance. It is PR.

        My main problem with google: I am not the customer, I am the product they sell.

        If you can live with that, good for you. I can’t and I won’t.

    • Kojiro_Kamex

      Since the apps are HTML5 (incl. CSS and JS) it shouldn’t be that hard of a job to get them run on Firefox.

      Actually, that could play in favour of Firefox OS.

  • Hayden Bridges

    I’m guessing the Pocket app isn’t available for Linux because I only see the Extension and Website.

    • Guest

      I have installed it several days ago. The apps had landed.
      You can visit:
      https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/pocket/mjcnijlhddpbdemagnpefmlkjdagkogk

      • http://wyf-emacs.blogspot.com/ 昱甫 吳

        Uhhh…I only see the Extension and Website, too. How strange…

        • Kenny Strawn

          Because the version of the Web Store that has packaged apps listed is only available to Dev Channel users. If you’re using Stable or Beta, you need the hard URL to the packaged app.

          And I don’t know very many non-developers or non-power users (I myself am a developer in training) that would want to take that risk of updating to something that unstable, so…

    • http://wyf-emacs.blogspot.com/ 昱甫 吳

      OMG!Ubuntu have post an article about it:
      http://www.omgchrome.com/pocket-goes-packaged-app-runs-offline/

    • RaviKiran K

      Chrome has only removed the shortcut. The code for the desktop apps is there. If the app is installed in Windows or chromeos, the app gets installed in chrome and is visible in the apps list in linux just like in Windows. I think that enabling the web shortcut in Linux will have serious security concerns!!! For Google Business , perhaps!

  • http://aproposnix.tumblr.com/ Aproposnix Jones

    I think you guys forgot to mention that unles you have a Google account you wll not be able to download and run a packed app… how’s that for a deal breaker?

    • Kenny Strawn

      No deal-breaker at all. Users can create Google accounts without creating Gmail accounts, as I did way back in 2008, adding Gmail a full year later…

      • http://aproposnix.tumblr.com/ Aproposnix Jones

        Um… you are missing the point. You *must* create a Google account.

    • Kojiro_Kamex

      Sure about that?
      Or just for the “store”?

      @kennystrawn:disqus
      Since you allready developed an app, can you also simply open the package with Chrome to have it install?

  • Goddard

    Chrome is really not the direction I want browsers to go.

    • Clarence Ingram

      Please can you tell us what your thinking, What is the direction your thinking of

    • Austin2222

      You may switch to Internet Explorer 6 then.

      • Goddard

        Seriously think about it. Chrome packaged apps just perpetuate Google’s business model they aren’t good for the end user and yes we can run complex things in the browser but we can run complex things out of the browser. All these extra bells and whistles will do is create more security holes and slow down. Google Chrome has slowly gotten slower while browsers like Firefox have caught up completely. I can’t see any speed difference any more. Think about it. What purpose do these packaged apps serve that isn’t already being served? Now Google is forking more pieces of the browser and for what? because Google notoriously takes open source projects puts their secret sauce in them and doesn’t give back that portion. Enjoy your push to the “cloud” because that is where Google wants you.

        • Kenny Strawn

          Several flaws with your reasoning:

          * Security: The CSPs for packaged apps and hosted apps are fundamentally different from each other. Unlike hosted apps, packaged apps cannot load ANY inline script or event handlers; all JavaScript MUST be sourced from other files within the app. Also, packaged apps cannot load inline CSS (see above) and, thanks to the packaged app same-origin policy, also cannot load any content from iFrames or reference any external resources other than audio or video tags; they must instead either use a sandboxed webview tag (itself an extension of the canvas element and, unlike iFrames, does not allow any content other than HTML to be embedded) or fetch external resources via XMLHttpRequest and THEN display them, in which case again only certain types of files, excluding code, are allowed. Also, string-to-Javascript methods such as eval and the “new Function()” object are banned in packaged apps.

          * Performance: Files that are loaded locally without any dependence on the network are going to be far faster than anything loaded from a remote location. Try downloading an HTML file and opening it in a browser from a local location. That’s how fast packaged apps are, because anything loaded over a network in contrast to all HTML, CSS, and Javascript being loaded locally is destined to have some serious latency issues.

          * Open source: With Google not only opening up 99.999999% of the source code to, let’s see, Android, Chrome OS, desktop Chrome, Blink, V8, and Google Gadgets, among other things, but also being the top code contributor to Ubuntu (among other Linux distributions), there’s no doubt Google is FAR more FOSS-friendly than Microsoft and/or Apple…

          • Goddard

            I can’t do anything to have a discussion about these things if all you do it cherry pick what you understand, or would rather talk about.

  • Anderverhaal

    I like the direction Google is moving in. They are bringing apps to every possible platform, like Windows, Mac Os X and Linux. Most platforms if not all, have HTML-capabilities. Because of that, apps written for Windows, also work on Linux. So, in the end, the Linux-community will profit from it tremendously.

    On the other hand, it’s of course raising privacy issues. But since NSA already breaks that, i wonder if it really is an issue…

  • Kenny Strawn

    Packaged apps (like, for example, this one that I happen to have put up there myself, as a developer in training that is) are capable of some pretty awesome stuff. Everything from keeping Chrome OS awake to accessing USB and Bluetooth devices to running outside the browser to sending users rich norifications to accessing unsandboxed and/or synced file systems — that’s all possible if apps have all their JavaScript, CSS, and HTML5 packed into them.

    Not only will Linux profit from this tremendously, but the only computers that are still experiencing sales growth with PC and (correct me if I’m wrong) Mac sales shrinking — Chromebooks — are in fact also, at the core, Linux-based, and packaged apps will only steepen that curve. Explosive Linux AND Chrome OS growth… that’s what this means. The market will FINALLY become competitive…

  • Joe Turner