When Sites Become Apps: Three Browsers Showcase the Web’s Future

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The late Steve Jobs' "sweet solution" for getting apps on the original iPhone -- before the App Store was invented -- was met with a collective sigh of disappointment. "Web apps," as they were called, were essentially a way to bookmark a website on your iPhone's home screen. They took forever to load, especially over the first iPhone's EDGE connection, and they couldn't even use all of the iPhone's features the same way that "native" apps could.

Now fast-forward five or six years to the present. Google is now selling laptops, called Chromebooks, where every app is a web app. They load faster and work better, even offline, to the point where you may not be able to tell the difference between them and native apps. And Mozilla and Opera are getting ready to take the wraps off of their own projects, which will bring web apps to the small screen -- the really small screen, of smartphones and tablets.

Opera Ice

"No buttons; no menus," according to the Opera rep who demoed the company's new browser, Ice, on an iPad. Just drag a site onto the Speed Dial -- sort of like a home screen for your browser -- and it becomes an app icon to tap on. The whole browser works like that, with gestures and swipes replacing the usual clutter.

Websites on Ice have animated transitions as you switch back and forth between them, and loading animations when you tap on a new one. Certain websites, like Google Maps, take up nearly the whole screen and use a special mobile interface that works like an app. But the "apps" themselves are still glorified bookmarks on Ice, which lacks an "app store" to discover and purchase them from. Unlike …

Mozilla Firefox

Especially Firefox OS, the nonprofit's upcoming mobile offering which will let you buy apps from the Mozilla Marketplace. The Marketplace is already open to people running the "Aurora" version of Firefox for Android smartphones and tablets, and you can buy apps (or download free ones) which will also work on the upcoming Firefox phones.

But what about ...

Google Chrome

Google's open-source Chrome web browser has had its own web app store for a while now, called the Chrome Web Store. Some of the apps there, such as Gmail Offline, even work while you aren't connected to the web (although they obviously can't send or receive emails during that time).

Chrome for iOS and Android, however, does not support web apps just yet. For now and the foreseeable future, Google still wants people to write (and buy) normal Android apps. And with Android devices even lacking the iPhone's "web app" feature, the Google Play store won't be losing business to the web anytime soon, even for Google's own offerings.

Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.

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