In my previous article in this series, Google Chrome vs. the World, Part 1: The Chrome Web Browser, I discussed how Google's inroads with the Chrome web browser pose a considerable threat to Microsoft. Today's topic represents an even direr message for the software giant. And it amounts to this: In an age of hugely popular app stores on a variety of platforms, why isn't Microsoft championing Windows- and web-based app stores of its own?
Google's new app store, called the Chrome Web Store, is such a store. It highlights free and paid web apps--that is, applications that run in the browser--and it does so in a way that is both familiar and friendly. Why web apps? In Google's world, web apps are native apps, because Google's OS is Chrome OS, which is based on the Chrome web browser.
(Google of course has a separate Android OS for mobile devices as well, and a separate--and terrible--Android Market, but one has to wonder if these two systems will one day merge or at least come more closely together.)
To the average Luddite, the notion of only using web apps, of storing or at least syncing private, important data with the cloud, well, well... that's crazy talk. But I say, welcome to the 21st century. And where Microsoft is busy porting its legacy software to the web, Google has the opportunity to start fresh, right on the web. So its solutions tend to be smaller, lighter, faster, and simpler.
But the web is an open platform, of course. And as was the case with Windows, we're seeing a wide range of apps now appearing on this new platform, and they're getting better all the time. But the Chrome Web Store addresses a very real problem with discovery, that is, how one goes about finding out that new apps even exist.
In the Windows world, the store is literally a store--either a physical retail store, like Best Buy, where you can wander up and down the aisles--or an electronic retailer, like Amazon, where you do so virtually. In both cases, however, what you're buying, oddly, is a box. It's a box full of air, and some form of paper documentation, and a disc that you use to install the software, manually, on your PC. Someone--either you or the guy from UPS--literally drives that box to your house. Sorry, but that's crazy talk.
This was a neat way of doing things in 1995, when optical disc drives were still pretty rare, and the notion of downloading a major application from an online source was ludicrous. Today, that is no longer the case. In fact, my most recent purchases of two very big software applications--Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office--were done electronically: I found these solutions online, paid for them electronically, and then downloaded and installed them to my PC.
Microsoft has no notion of a Windows software store at all, let alone a web application store for Internet Explorer 9. And it needs one, badly. And all you need to see to realize this is an online store that's done right. Apple's iTunes Store and App Store. The Windows Phone Marketplace. And now the Google Chrome Web Store.
Google describes the Web Store as the solution to a problem: Help users find the excellent, high quality web applications that are already out there, and provide them with a way to automatically install those apps, and keep them up to date over time. It's a great idea, and it's implemented very nicely.
One thing that has confused people is that there are two kinds of apps in the Web Store. The first kind is just a normal web site, one that would load fine in most other, non-Chrome browsers as well. But the reason the Web Store is special is because it supports a second kind of web app, called a packaged app. These packaged apps are Chrome-specific--i.e. will work on the PC-based version of Chrome you're using now, or on Chrome OS-based devices in the future as well--and use Chrome developer hooks to provide unique features like offline use. (Offline use is not a prerequisite for being made available as a packaged app; instead, it's just one of the available features of this app type.)
The Google Web Store is in beta, so hopefully they'll work to call out these special apps better, and provide some documentation about what special features each offers. For now, however, there are already some killer apps in there. The best, perhaps, is The New York Times app, which offers a beautiful UI with multiple layout types, what appears to be full access to the daily paper for free, offline reading (i.e. "text only") capabilities, and more. It's just fantastic.
There are other good examples of packaged apps, including some games like Poppit--demoed at this past week's event--and Sports Illustrated Snapshot, which seems aimed squarely at today's sound-bite culture, featuring beautiful, high-res photos and a minimum of prose.
But the app store isn't just about providing a place to find apps. The innovation here also includes an underlying platform in which apps can be synced between instances of Chrome and are always kept up to date, without any user intervention. This is hugely important, and desirable. And while syncing apps between web browsers may seem somewhat limiting, remember that Chrome is really a platform, and is the basis for the Chrome OS. So those synced apps will be synced--and kept up to date on--any Chrome OS-based PC you log onto as well. There is nothing like this in Windows.
To recap, Google has very quickly and elegantly created a number of things that Windows users have needed for years, and it has done so with a minimum of fuss. I'm talking about an app store that is both attractive and useful. An applications platform in which paid and free apps "follow" you from PC to PC (and from browser to browser) simply by virtue of you logging into that device (or browser). And that app platform has, as part of it, a way to keep those apps up to date, automatically, all the time.
Don't see why this is a big? Allow me to draw your attention back to over 12 years ago when Microsoft was designing Windows 98. At the time, it was working on integrating its software updating service, Windows Update, into the OS (via the browser). And I was told that the plan for Windows Update was to open it up first to other (non-Windows) Microsoft applications--like Office--and then, over time, to third party apps as well. The idea was that Windows users would have a central place to ensure that any installed apps would always be kept up to date.
12 years later, we still don't have that service in Windows. But Google has it in Chrome. Yes, yes, it's a smaller engineering feat, I get it. But one of the reasons that smaller, faster, and more capable systems win is that they can run rings around the established, dinosaur-like established players. And that's exactly what's going to happen here unless Microsoft gets its act together and gives users what they need.