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Posted on February 3rd, 2011 by Barry Collins

Google doesn’t know what an “app” is

Chrome Web StoreWords are frequently abused in the tech industry. There are “hacks” that involve zero hacking, “downloads” when people mean uploads, “viruses” used to refer to anything faintly malicious on a computer.

Yet, the one that’s been so wildly abused that it deserves a sugary cup of tea and its own counsellor is the word “app”.

Until the iPhone came along, the word “application” largely meant a self-contained piece of software installed on a PC or Mac. Then Apple took ownership, trimmed it to three letters, and within months the word “app” became synonymous with small widgets of code for smartphones. Now, Google’s pushing the boundaries of the “app” definition even further.

Google Chrome users will have seen a new addition to their browser recently: the Chrome Web Store. Here, you’ll find dozens of “apps” to install and run directly from a handy icon on the browser’s home screen.

Except, these aren’t “apps” at all. They’re websites.

“Install” the astronomy app Planetarium, for example, and your browser is merely redirected to the Planetarium website. You can copy that URL and paste it into Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari and you get exactly the same experience. Google’s idea of “apps” are what we quaintly referred to in the good old days as “bookmarks”.

True, there are some “apps” that have been specifically redesigned for Chrome – presumably in advance of Chrome OS’s arrival on netbooks. For example, the smart-looking New York Times app, that looks much more accessible for small-screen readers than the newspaper’s website. But why restrict these to Chrome? That URL works on any netbook, in any browser. Is Google paying these companies to promote these sites as “Chrome apps”, perhaps?

I’ve even managed to write my own Chrome app in my lunch break, based on the PC Pro A List. I won’t pretend it was a gargantuan feat of coding: a few judicious edits of Google’s sample manifest file, and a little help from PC Pro’s art team to resize our logo to suit Google’s guidelines, and voila! A PC Pro A List app running in my web browser.

PC Pro app bar

PC Pro A List

I’d upload it to the Chrome Web Store if I didn’t have to go through Google’s rather complex procedures to prove I run and pay $5 for the privilege. That and deal with the crushing disappointment of PC Pro readers who see our “app” in the store, then realise it simply points to the A List section of our website.

Yes, Google does offer the opportunity to create “packaged apps”, with content that can be run when the browser’s offline, but trying to pass off bookmarks as “apps” is a little too close to snake oil for my liking.

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12 Responses to “ Google doesn’t know what an “app” is ”

  1. Randy Muller Says:
    February 3rd, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Microsoft was using “app” in 1990 to refer to application programs running on OS/2. Apple did not invent this term for the iPhone.

  2. Lloyd D. Ollmann, Jr. Says:
    February 3rd, 2011 at 7:13 pm


    You do realize that NeXT used both the word and extension ‘app’ for it’s applications since 1987.

    Additionally since Apple paid NeXT to take Apple of it’s hands in 1996 that the renamed NeXT to Apple should allow NeXT to continue to have claim of the the word ‘app’.

  3. Rick K Says:
    February 3rd, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    This article is remarkably ill informed and narrow minded. The term “app” has been in use for decades. Has the author never heard the phrase “killer app”? Or has he never looked at the three letter extension on Mac apps? Here’s a hint: it starts with an “A” and ends with a “P.”

    And since when does code that runs on a remote machine (server) that you access through a web client not count as a program?

  4. Charles Marsh Says:
    February 3rd, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Isn’t this just a case of Google’s through-the-looking-glass world extruding out into our own? For Google, applications are what run on servers; users have a web browser, and as much of an operating system as is needed to get a web browser up and running. Google Docs consists of complex, dynamic web pages. If that’s an example of an online application, simple web pages must be apps.
    Doesn’t mean you or I have to like the look of the Google universe. Mind-bendingly, it means that Google’s most popular ‘app’ is its one for Internet search.

  5. Jake Says:
    February 3rd, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    What are your criteria for something being an “app” as opposed to a website? Is Google Docs any less of an “app” than Microsoft Office just because you access it through a web browser?

  6. Slaton Ellis Says:
    February 3rd, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    It’d be nice to hear about the roots of the word “application” and “app”. THe first time I really heard the word as related to computer software was way back in, um, 1984. It was used to differentiate consumer software versus system software and utilities.

  7. NR Says:
    February 4th, 2011 at 12:05 am

    “What we quaintly referred to in the old days as bookmarks.”

    In the old days, a bookmark marked, in fact, a place in a book. If you want to use it to refer to a link to a website, it seems odd to get all purist about how you use the abbreviation app – which is, in itself, a sort of bookmark.

  8. Milk Says:
    February 4th, 2011 at 2:05 am

    Google is letting folk trick others into paying for the privilege of a ‘weblink’? Is it /that/ hard to create such a site bookmark link icon in the main Android GUI? And I don’t see a problem with the term, they’re all just a form of ‘applicable’ solutions to HCI and all. Web sites can do mobile and tablet formats to widen their audience participation, etc. Sites can hold a lot of data and have a peasy interface. ‘Web apps’, widgets and SaaS and whatnot. This may explain why Javascript is getting bigger as of late – – so I’m looking to more HTML5(+offline)+CSS3+JS wonders in this area. Just a thought :)

  9. Benoit Says:
    February 4th, 2011 at 4:53 am

    You are, in fact, wrong. An “application” is any use of a system that is not completely specified in the system itself. The word application is meaningless if it is not relative to a system. For example, in the electronics world, “applications” of an integrated circuit are circuit schematics that use the IC towards a certain purpose. In the standard 7-layer communications protocol stack model, the “application layer” is the uppermost layer, i.e. the one that is not specified in the standard. In the domain of communications with smartcard, the unit of transport is the “APDU” — application packet data unit. Application just means “stuff that bolts on to the system”.

    Once you stop considering your computer as an autonomous system, and start considering the web as a distributed platform that englobes client computers and servers instead, Chrome apps are exactly that — applications.

  10. TomArah Says:
    February 4th, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Barry, I think it all makes sense when you think of rich internet applications eg, buzzword etc. Rather than Google not understanding what an app is, I think that Apple is trying to artificially restrict it to device-specific native apps. And why not have a Flickr or PC Pro launch icon/bookmark if those are sites you visit regularly? It’s all part of the blurred boundaries of cloud computing.

  11. DgDeBx Says:
    February 5th, 2011 at 5:49 am

    I don’t think the author quite understands the intent of the Chrome Web Store. Many companies (including Google) offer fully featured ‘applications’ through the web which are as good or better than some of the applications that run off of CDs. Chrome Web Store allows people to find online, cloud-based alternatives to the offline applications they normally use. The future is in the cloud, with automatic updating and cross-device compatibility, and the Chrome Web Store is a step towards that future. I have discovered many great ‘apps’ from the Web Store, such as Grooveshark, Pixlr and Sharepoint, that I use on a regular basis.

    I do, however, agree that glorified bookmarks for websites which are not applications in any sense of the word is an abuse of the Web Store (ie. link to

  12. Mike Says:
    November 15th, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Back in the old days of the web, web pages were mostly static–e.g.: if you went to then came back 2 years later, you would see the exact same thing. Your input could not alter the content of the page. This is why links were originally called ‘bookmarks’ because the web was mostly like a giant book of pages that never changed, just like a book.

    This is no longer true. Websites like facebook are not at all static. If you bookmark your facebook profile page, and come back–I don’t know–1 minute later–it could look like a totally different web page. This is NOT AT ALL like a book.

    It seems like you want to insist that an “app” be something that you download and install on your device. But please realize that this is YOUR definition. There is nothing in the general definition of “app” or “application” that specifies it must run on your local machine. Look at systems like X-Windows on Unix and Linux systems. The X-Windows applications run on a remote server. According to you, if I’m running Firefox via X-Windows, then all of a sudden Firefox is no longer an “app”.

    Really. We need to require non-techies to take “science and technology literacy” courses in school.


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