Roll out the welcome mat, my friends: Chrome apps are officially coming to Android. Yup -- the same utilities designed for your computer's browser will soon be able to run on your phone and tablet, too.
Google announced the news in a blog on Tuesday. In short, developers can now use a special tool to wrap their Chrome apps in a shell that'll let them work on mobile devices. The tool is built specifically for the types of apps featured in the Chrome Web Store's "For Your Desktop" section -- apps with offline support that look and act like native desktop applications.
At a glance, this might seem like good news. More apps on Android has gotta be better, right? Not necessarily.
Stop and think for a moment about the actual implications -- what this will really mean from a user perspective. We've just reached the point in the last couple of years where Android apps are starting to look both good and consistent, generally speaking, thanks to the design guidelines Google introduced with Android 4.0 and has been subtly refining ever since. There's finally a unified design language within the platform, with elements that carry throughout the experience and make it easy for users to get around.
Remember back around 2009, when many Android apps looked like they were just lazily ported over from iOS? It didn't make for a very good user experience -- either visually or in terms of behavior, where there was no consistency in how basic things like navigation and menus worked.
The Android team has worked hard since then to get developers on the same page -- to get them actually developing for Android. And it shows. Now we're actively encouraging developers to lazily port over programs from another platform, without putting in any effort to make them look and function like Android apps? It's déjà vu all over again.
Okay, let's pause for a second. Am I jumping the gun with my apprehension? Maybe. We won't really know how this'll play out until developers start submitting ported Android apps and we have a chance to use 'em. But based on everything Google's saying so far, there's certainly cause for concern.
Just look at the sample Google posted to show off a list-making Chrome app ported into Android, at left. Compare it to Tasks, at right, a list-making app developed natively for Android with the platform's design guidelines in mind:
The first one looks like a Web app wrapped up and running on a phone. The second looks like an Android app, with styling and navigation that fits properly within the platform. Both visually and functionally, the difference is immense.
We've been seeing more and more signs of this sort of cross-platform pollination since Chrome and Apps VP Sundar Pichai took the reins of Android last year. It's understandable from a business standpoint, and some of the changes have actually been positive -- like the integration of Google Search into Android's phone app and the move of Google Cloud Print into the system level.
Encouraging developers to port over apps from other platforms without tailoring them to Android, however, is a dangerous move that threatens to erode the level of quality and consistency the Android development team has worked so hard to achieve. We've reached the point where quality is the focus over quantity. The numbers are already there. We don't merely need more apps; we need more apps that are well-designed for the platform.
In the short term, I can only hope the new Chrome-ported apps are clearly designated as such so users can understand the difference and know what they're getting. In the long term, I can only hope this isn't a sign of a broader philosophical shift ahead.