How Google plans to rule the computing world through Chrome

If you’ve been paying attention lately, you’ll see the signs of a significant disruption in computing. No, I’m not talking about mobile: That disruption already happened and we’re in the midst of it playing out now as PC sales have become stagnant at best. Instead, it’s within the browser: Google(s goog) Chrome is the harbinger of change and through it, Google has huge potential to change computing once again.

Chromebook PixelIn fact, I’d go so far as to say, within a year, many of you will be using a Chromebook. Before you roll your eyes, let me add one caveat: That Chromebook won’t be Google-designed hardware; instead it will be on the Mac(s aapl), Windows(s msft) or Linux machine you have at that time. So it won’t be a Google-built device like my Chromebook Pixel is.

Let’s step back and I’ll explain.

Chrome is widely installed and growing

When Google launched the Chrome browser in late 2008 for Windows, the idea behind it was to speed up your web experience. It took until May of 2010 for all three major operating systems to have a stable version of the browser. Since then, usage has grown tremendously. Looking at market share summaries from five sources (consolidated at Wikipedia), four of them show Chrome as the biggest market share in March, 2013. (Note: April’s numbers are missing one source, which is why I’ve pointed to March figures.)

March 2013 desktop browser share

If you follow browser share statistics — hey, we all need a hobby — this won’t surprise you. Chrome has continued to slowly grow its worldwide user base with rather steady progress. And there’s little reason to assume that trend will change any time soon. So what does that mean?

For many Chrome is just a browser. For others who use a Chromebox or Chromebook, like myself, it’s my full-time operating system. The general consensus is that Chrome OS, the platform used on these devices, can only browse the web and run either extensions and web apps; something any browser can do. Simply put, the general consensus is wrong and the signs are everywhere.

Let’s talk about Chrome apps

First, much time was spent at Google I/O on two key topics we featured on last week’s GigaOM Chrome Show podcast: Packaged Apps and Native Client apps. You can listen to the show for a full description by Google’s own Joe Marini, but I’ll summarize the concept here.

Packaged apps are written in HTML, JavaScript and CSS, just like a traditional website or web app. There’s one subtle difference though. These apps are “packaged” in a way that allows them to run outside of the Chrome browser on any device that has Chrome installed. And they can run when the user is offline. Google Keep is a perfect example of this. I use it as a to-do list outside of my browser, both online and offline. When I don’t have a connection, my data is saved locally and when I later connect to the web, Google Keep automatically syncs my data to the cloud.

Google Keep

Here’s an image from my Chromebook showing Google Keep outside of the browser. Note too, the notification message at the bottom right; Google has added these in the developer channel of Chrome, bringing even more desktop features to the environment.

Native client apps are similar in that they’re also packaged and they support offline access. There’s a key difference however: These apps are coded in their native programming languages — C or C++ for example — compiled and then embedded in HTML where they behave like standalone native apps. Google says there’s about a 5 percent overhead performance hit, so they’re not quite as fast as their native app counterparts.

Pixel gamingA good example of a native client app is a game I played on my Chromebook Pixel recently called Cracking Sands Racing The app, a port of a game for iOS and Android, was a 533 MB download to my Pixel and I played it outside of the browser. Even better, the support for a gamepad worked just fine as I used an Xbox 360 controller to play the game. Controls and graphics were responsive; no different overall that if I was playing a version of the game on a Mac or PC.

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s good for you since you have a Chromebook. What do I care?”

Chrome is a back door to the new app economy

Here’s the thing: Both Packaged Apps and Native Client apps work on any computer that has the Chrome browser installed. You remember: the browser that has the biggest market share. Even better, Google is working on Portable Native Client, which extends the native client app support to mobiles. Meanwhile, at Google I/O, the company said these apps can work on mobiles through Apache Cordova, a set of cross-platform APIs that support iOS(s aapl), Android, BlackBerry(s bbry), Windows Phone and more.

You can see where I’m going with this but lets take it a step further. Have you noticed that Google recently added the Chrome App Launcher to Microsoft Windows? It’s the same app launcher that’s native to Chrome OS. And Google is working on it for the Mac platform; it’s already in the developer channel for Chromium. And it’s sure to follow for Linux.

Chrome App Launcher Mac

Essentially, once you can run web, Packaged and Native Client apps on any device with the Chrome framework, you need an easy way to manage and launch them. Think of Chrome as a platform environment atop a platform. On my Pixel, Chrome runs over Linux. For you, Chrome may run on top of Windows or OS X. Both of those have their own program launchers but as developers expand the number of Chrome apps, you’ll use the Chrome App Launcher to access them.

By the way, in the launcher picture above, did you notice that CIRC doesn’t have the same little arrow as the other icons? That means it’s an app, not a web shortcut.

Wait, won’t the big platform players block this?

Along with the disruption of mobile devices, the physical media market has undergone changes too. We typically don’t buy apps on a disk to install them any longer. Instead, platforms are providing centralized applications stores that they maintain control over. The Mac App Store is a perfect example. Note that you can install apps from outside of the App Store, provided you allow for such actions in your security settings. Since these stores are controlled by the platform makers, won’t Apple, Microsoft and others try to keep Chrome apps from spreading to the desktop?

Chrome web storeThey can try but I don’t think they’ll succeed, except maybe on mobiles. If people find the apps compelling enough, they’ll be in an uproar for starters. But there’s another possible reason and I think it’s brilliant on Google’s part.

I noticed that when I downloaded Cracking Sands Racing, the video game I was able to play offline on my Pixel, the file had a .crx file extension. That may not look familiar to you, but I recognize it. It’s the same file extension Chrome uses for browser extensions. If that naming convention holds true, any company blocking Chrome app installations would also block Chrome extensions. How would the Chrome using community react to that? Not well.

What does your desktop look like a year from now?

As I alluded to at the beginning of this post, if you’re a Chrome user today, you’ll be more immersed in the Chrome ecosystem a year from now, even if you don’t have an “official” Chromebook. This all depends on how well Google pulls off its strategy to upend the desktop computing world, but so far, it seems to be on track.

Bear in mind the apps in this vision will be truly cross-platform as they’ll run on any Windows, Mac or Linux computer with Chrome installed. If it can get developers on board — and those I spoke with at Google I/O are ready to embrace the effort — Google will have a thriving desktop platform built on top of the platforms created by others. But it will be a desktop that’s far more agile, with new features added within days or weeks, not months or years.

Welcome to Chrome, my desktop today and your desktop of the future.