Websites are slowly but surely becoming the new software by offering a multitude of functionalities right through your browser. There’s no need to download big, bulky packages or to install them. Don’t get me wrong – downloadable software has tons of benefits for power users and it will probably be many years before we can replace them entirely, but for the everyday Chromebook user, web apps are king. Sites like Facebook, Youtube and Google Photos hardly scratch the surface when we begin to discuss the possibilities. There’s just one problem though – with the open web housing billions of useful web-based software solutions, it’s odd that there isn’t really a great place to discover them. Google’s Chrome Web Store no longer serves much of the purpose it used to as everyone has become obsessed with Android apps, but with the rise of web apps, it could take on new life. That is if Google copies services like Appscope.

A progressive web application takes advantage of the latest technologies to combine the best of web and mobile apps. Think of it as a website built using web technologies but that acts and feels like an app. Recent advancements in the browser and in the availability of service workers and in the Cache and Push APIs have enabled web developers to allow users to install web apps to their home screen, receive push notifications and even work offline.

Smashing Magazine

Appscope is a progressive web app store that allows you to find and install web-based software experiences that run offline and have app-like functionality. There are tons of useful tools, games and websites on the site for many a user’s needs. Each category of web app is neatly listed on the left side and each listing is presented beautifully with friendly, rounded corners in a grid-like layout. Basically, it looks like an app store, just for websites. I think that Google could take a lot of notes here.

A side-by-side comparison of the Web Store and Appscope

In its early days, the Chrome Web Store got lots of flak for letting developers just list their website as an ‘app’ without really providing an offline experience or any other app-like capabilities. Most people using the store were looking for experiences that were more than just a link to a website, but I would argue that times have changed dramatically. In 2020, we’re all about websites. They are native to Chromebooks, work better than Google Play apps (sadly), and are beginning to become more progressive with time. It would seem that the Web Store was ahead of its time. Most of the Google Play or “Android” apps you’re using on your Chromebook likely have a website variant which runs better and often times, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between them, aside from the fact that the web app scales properly to your screen and functions better.

The Chrome Web Store was created in December 2010, so it’s getting quite old now. Since its inception, it has only been given one coat of paint and that was two years ago – a light and already outdated brush of material design. It’s all but dead, but now is a better time than ever to give it new life with a renewed purpose. If Google wants new Chromebook users to find great “software” to get up and running out of the box, I say here and now that instead of relying on the Google Play Store, they ought to completely revamp the Chrome Web Store instead of killing it off.

You see, I spent three years as a Chromebook Expert in customer service for a large retailer and I will be the first to tell you that when customers crack their new device open and start playing with it, they look for software – not websites. In fact, despite the power and infinite possibility that websites or web apps offer, most customers would discount them almost entirely. I don’t think it’s that they’re opposed to them, I just think that it’s how they’re presented. They’re also taken for granted in place of the allure of full-fledged software where it was not even needed. I would even go so far as to say that websites just being treated as websites are what have held Chromebooks back for so long. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that Chromebooks are “just a web browser in a box” or that they’re “Facebook machines”. When users have to type in a URL inside of a browser tab to get to a new experience, they feel like they’re just there for information. Websites have, historically, been used to deliver information, after all. High levels of unique, web-based interactivity, while not new, are encountered sparingly by a non-techie ‘browser’. They check their bank balance, watch a Youtube video and go shopping on Amazon, among other things. While those tasks are interactive by definition, they’re still largely focused on information delivery. The average user’s notion of what software is needs to be transformed with time and I believe that Google has the power and authority to do it. They also have the perfect tool – the Web Store. I mean, it’s literally in the name!

I get that Google wants users to go and make their Chromebook their own by filling it with any experience they could possibly imagine, but most people probably wouldn’t know where to begin. As a Chromebook Expert, I spent more time setting up customer’s devices than I did selling them! Turning Amazon, Bank of America, Facebook and more into icons and placing them on their selves just so that they had a sense of direction before leaving the store ensured that these devices would not come back as returns. I was happy to do it as it gave them a sense of ownership and comfort in their transition, but I always felt that Google should be the one to shoulder this responsibility. Since they want their laptops to succeed, they have the responsibility of giving users a much better way of exploring the possibilities and potential of the open web’s functionality. Why should the user have to venture into the unknown to find new web experiences with no assistance? Why should the user have to ‘install’ that website as a shortcut by going through three to five clicks? Compared to the fast and personal experience of the Google Play Store, the open web feels archaic. It feels like the wild west if I’m honest. If Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, returning thousands of web links through a Google search is no longer enough. Web software deserves better. Chromebook owners deserve better.

I would also argue that the Chrome Web Store doesn’t need to wait until web apps become universally progressive to display them in a storefront. Sure, they would just start out as a website link with an icon, high-quality screenshots and so one, but as a website added offline functionality, touch and swipe controls and more, Google could use their artificial intelligence and machine learning supercomputers to detect these changes and update the Web Store accordingly. They could also build incentives for developers to update their own listings – similar to how the Play Store works. The whole focus would be to have curated, organized and up to date, web-based software for discovery displayed for users in a high-quality manner to increase the appeal and usefulness of Chromebooks and the Chrome browser.

I think that Google should find a way to provide one-click install of web apps, progressive or not through the Chrome Web Store for users. Visiting a website and going to more > more tools > create a shortcut feels like a lot of work for something that could be automated. It also shouldn’t have to be done by the end-user. Most tech-savvy buyers knew how to visit websites, but most were also oblivious to the fact that they could make those sites feel native with an app icon for easy access. It’s not their fault though, Google doesn’t exactly advertise this. Regardless, I believe this is the best way to use a Chromebook. Appscope just has a ‘launch’ button that takes you to that website and you must follow these same steps, but I think Google can do better. Most people just end up visiting a website through a Google search, using it as a browser tab and then closing it again, but there’s no sense of ownership or personal touch to this approach. Since everyone buying a new Chromebook is coming from either Mac, Windows, Android or iOS and all of those operating systems use iconography to represent apps or software, it feels odd for Chromebooks to miss the mark here. They need to stop defining themselves as laptops with Android apps. They’re not – they are so much more. They’re the future if they can harness the open web properly. Android apps feel like a broken stopgap. They’re great when they work, but when they don’t, it shatters the vision. Google needs to stop relying on developers to help them create a cohesive and unified experience for its operating system and take it into their own hands instead.

They have created the ability for progressive web apps to be installed via the omnibox with a plus button as seen in the picture below, but that won’t work for non-progressive websites and it has still not been rolled out to the masses. For someone who turns every website I frequent into a shortcut and organizes it into my Chromebook launcher, a Web Store ‘install’ button would be incredible.

Chrome Browser PWA install banner in the omnibox

Now that I’ve made a case for the existence and importance of the Chrome Web Store in 2020 and beyond, here are my suggestions to Google for reviving it:

  • Apply a fresh coat of paint with Material Design 2
  • Require web developers to upload high quality screenshots and keep listing information up to date
  • Display web apps whether or not they are progressive. Appscope’s limitation is that they only display PWAs, but as a Chromebook Expert, I’ve seen great usefulness come from creating shortcuts of regular sites. They’re accessible, beautifully displayed in the Chromebook launcher and create a sense of ownership
  • Create new icons for the service in alignment with Google Workspace’s design aesthetic. They’ve very Googley and appealing!
  • Don’t tuck away categories. Display them openly like Appscope does
  • Curate Top Lists, Category recommendations and more and cycle these weekly using a team of editors
  • If possible, utilize AI/ML to automate the addition and maintenance of web apps in the storefront. Allow developers to submit their own, but begin by using an internal team to curate as many as possible
  • Help users understand web apps with a video tutorial on the feature banner. Teach them how to install web apps until you can automate this process. The more you empower your users, the more they will love Chromebooks
  • Retain segments of the Web Store like ‘Works Offline’, ‘Free’, ‘Paid’, ‘Works with Drive’, etc.
  • Retain ‘By Google’ and display every last one of your beautiful and beloved web apps with their new icons.
  • If a website offers a subscription, allow users to manage that or pay for it through the Web Store. While this may be controversial to some, I think that the Play Store has done a fine job of this and could see the benefit to unifying the experience here for the open web. You could also take a cut.
  • Revitalizing the Chrome Web Store could be a stepping stone to offering web apps through the Google Play Store, or it could be done the other way around. Stepping next into a revamp of the web-based Play store (I have tons of thoughts on this for another day) and offering apps through it if possible would allow a fully web-based merger of apps, web apps and cloud gaming. The reason I recommend this is because my customers were always confused about having two ‘app stores’ on a Chromebook.
  • Keep extensions and themes
  • Introduce the Chrome Web Store with web app recommendations to users through the ‘Explore’ app on their Chromebooks during the OOBE.

As web app stores like PWA rocks shut down and Appscope always seems to have a limited, non-rotating selection of experiences, I believe it is not only Google’s duty, but also their brand to step in where others have failed and create something that changes lives. Web-based software experiences can be transformative and the open web is the future. Google not only has the means and the vision to fill this gap – they already have the perfect position and platform and it just makes sense.