Google is sunsetting Chrome apps. Let’s look at the Chrome OS app landscape

Not many people were using these apps anymore.

The time has come, and Chrome apps are going away.

In a move that has been expected for a while, Google provided an end of life timeline on all supported operating systems. However, Chromebook users still have plenty of options when it comes to app types available on Chrome OS. And, of course, most of the world just thinks about Chrome and Chrome OS in terms of the most obvious types of apps: pure web apps, and maybe extensions.

Let’s take a look at the landscape.

Chrome apps

A Chrome app is similar to the web-based apps we know today, using HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript to provide an app-like experience. The apps are accessed through a separate Chrome browser window on any OS that runs Chrome, including desktop and mobile devices.

What made Chrome apps special is that they could go beyond what a pure web app could do. Some Chrome apps worked offline and boasted additional features like being able to use the device’s USB or Bluetooth and even access some user files saved on the device.

Chrome apps first came on the scene in 2013, but since then modern apps and browsers have progressed, and Google is ready to shut it down. “The progress of modern browsers puts the Web in a good position to answer the vast majority of use cases… We are confident that the Web can deliver first class experiences on an open platform.”

Google explained that support on Windows, Mac, and Linux devices ends this December, while support ends on Chrome OS in June 2022. We knew that support for the first three OSes was eventually going away, even as it got pushed back a couple times, but not that Chrome apps would be dropped entirely.

Plain old web apps

So, the first option available to Chrome OS users is the one most people will likely already be familiar with: an HTML5 web application, provided you have a consistent internet connection.

Progressive web apps

These apps are what I’d consider the evolution of Chrome apps as they act similarly and are actually Google’s top suggestion for developers looking to pivot from Chrome apps. I looked at PWA back in 2018 and it’s easiest to think of them like visiting a website from an address bar-less browser window, with a desktop shortcut to further emulate the app experience. Thanks to service workers, some PWA can even offer offline usability.

Extensions and extension-enhanced web pages

Another option developers have is that they can convert their Chrome apps into extension-enhanced web pages. Chrome’s extension API allows web pages to go beyond what a normal web app can do; for example, maybe developers need an extension to pull OAuth2 access tokens, make changes to web page content, or even override the system’s power management features. The downside to this is that it does require each and every user download the necessary extension, and given the risky nature of Chrome extensions, not all users might want to do this. Using an extension also limits the functionality to just Chromium-based browsers. 

Android apps

While Android apps are notoriously finicky and less stable on Chrome OS, they are another option for users. These you just download from the Google Play Store and you’re good to go. One word of caution: users might need a decently spec’d out Chromebook for some Android apps to provide a decent experience, if the comments from this recent article around the staleness of Chrome OS are anything to go by.

Remote Windows apps

Windows apps are actually accessible on Chrome OS. These apps don’t run natively, but rather are remote Windows apps, with the Chromebook acting as a thin client. All major desktop virtualization platforms support access from modern browsers, so using a browser or a Chromebook to access remote desktops and apps isn’t the big deal it once was. 

Linux apps

Lastly, users can access Linux apps on Chromebook. Google added the ability to run Linux on Chromebooks back in 2018, though it remains a beta feature.

To run Linux apps, users will have to first install Linux on their Chromebook. Accessing and using Linux apps is a little more involved from a technical perspective than the other options, especially as you need to use Terminal to install apps. It’s not clear how popular an option this is, but there are guides available if you need Linux apps or just want to try them out.

Closing thoughts

I’ll be honest, I was surprised there was even such a thing as “Chrome apps” until this week when the deprecation news dropped, as no one ever talked about them. Guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that Google is killing them off then!

For those who still use Chrome apps (which isn’t very easy these days as Jack found out when he tried to launch a few), there’s no reason to despair as I’ve shown above that Chrome OS users have plenty of app access options. Browser-based apps remain the best method of accessing apps on Chromebooks, which is what I’m sure many people did anyway for the majority of their usage.

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