Are packaged apps becoming a key weapon in Google's apparent plan of world domination? That question is being raised -- in various forms -- by the technology giant's updates and additions this week to its application programming interfaces for these souped-up apps in Google's Chrome browser.
Packaged apps are an emerging set of applications designed to run in that browser, currently available only through the Chrome browser's developer channel. But, unlike other Web apps, they are closer to apps that are native to a given platform, since they can run offline, display in a borderless browser that resembles an app window, and can use APIs to gain access to a device's hardware and other functionality.
Unveiled in 2012
Google said this week that packaged apps will be able to communicate with Bluetooth devices, such as smartphones, headphones or exercise-oriented peripherals. Packaged apps can now also support Google Wallet-based payments in an app, such as buying virtual goods or upgrading to a premium version, as well as subscription-based billing.
Packaged apps will also be able to import and read music, videos or images from a local disk with user consent. Packaged apps also offer OAuth 2.0 support for automatic sign-ins via a Google or third-party account; aggregate data can be collected on user activity via an analytics API; and a native messaging API provides access to such hardware as sensors. In addition, the packaged apps' Identity APIs can authenticate users, call the Google Drive API for saving documents to the cloud, and provide secure access to APIs for Google+ and Calendar.
Step by step, Google has been moving packaged apps through stages of development. They were unveiled at the company's I/O Conference in 2012, and a Windows Start-like launch tool for packaged apps, called the App Launcher, was released for the Chrome browser on Windows in February of this year.
A New Browser War?
On its Chrome developers' site, Google writes that "packaged apps look and behave like native apps, and they have native-like capabilities that are much more powerful than those available to web apps."
Michael Facemire, an analyst with Forrester Research, said that the ability to deliver these kinds of super-apps via any Chrome browser is a "big deal," and that it signals a return to browser wars that should more accurately be called "browser/OS wars."
Facemire said the Chrome packaged apps were "not an end run around platforms," but rather "another way to deliver apps that are written once and can run anywhere." He also said they were related to hybrid apps for mobile devices, which similarly offer some level of access to hardware functions and use HTML5 technologies.