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Google’s mobile Chrome apps could challenge mobile enterprise incumbents

Google is preparing a toolkit for delivering Chrome-packaged apps on Android and iOS

Google is in the process of coordinating mobile development for native Chrome apps according to multiple reports. Given the richness of HTML5 the move, if successful, could be much more disruptive than anticipated, potentially challenging established mobile virtualisation incumbents like Citrix and enterprise mobile app providers more broadly.

According to a GitHub repository led by a software developer at Google and first spotted by The Next Web, the company is in the process of putting together a toolkit that will help developers create hybrid Chrome / native apps running on Android and iOS.

Documents in the Git suggest the toolkit will be geared towards reworking existing Chrome packaged apps to run through the Chrome browser on mobile platforms using Apache Cordova, an open source platform for building native mobile apps in HTML, CSS and JavaScript. They may also hit desktops beyond devices using Chrome OS, Google’s netbook operating system.

The company hopes to have a beta version of the toolkit by January 2014, and suggests apps developed with the toolkit could be available through Google Play Store and the Apple App Store, although it is unclear how the latter will be achieved as Apple typically forces developers to use its SDK for any apps sold through the App Store.

Chrome apps are essentially HTML5-based apps (with CCS and JavaScript) with access to proprietary APIs that allow these apps to work offline – surpassing the limited caching features currently built into the HMTL 5 standard.

These apps are fairly powerful, and speak to how much Google has invested in HTML5, one of Larry Page’s “big bets”, and down the line the results of the company’s efforts may even start to disrupt mobile virtualisation and enterprise app incumbents  like Citrix and Microsoft (respectively) as these businesses look to bring their productivity and collaboration offerings to a range of mobile platforms in the form of mobilised legacy apps.Porting Chrome apps to a range of platforms could help bring powerful applications to a range of mobile platforms beyond Chrome OS, a logical extension for Google, and offload much of the heavy lifting to the browser while creating minimal work for developers looking for cross-platform access.

“In general, I like what I see, but I also don’t,” said Rafael Laguna, co-founder and chief executive officer of Open-Xchange, a software as a service pioneer offering a web-based collaboration and productivity suite. “What Google does is make the hybrid model available only on Chrome, which is a good step in the right direction. But really what they should be doing is offering a purely web-based model.”

Laguna, who says he’s also bet the company on the prospect that HTML5 will be the UI programming language of the future for all devices, explained that what Google is doing is only an interim step to realising a fully web-based model for deploying apps on mobile platforms, reducing platform dependency. “Now we’re at the stage where these browsers actually become the operating system for the device – Chrome OS does that, Firefox does that, the mobile extensions are just another step in this strategy. LightDesk does the same thing for the Firefox browser,” he said.

One of the key features Google is bringing to the table here is offline working and syncing, the lack of which being a big barrier for enterprises looking to replace legacy apps with more flexible web-based offerings developed by a new generation of SaaS providers. This often leads businesses to go down the path of virtualising legacy apps at great cost (financially and performance-wise), or using the cloud-based versions of those applications (i.e. Office365), which can be equally costly.

Part of the challenge, Laguna explains, is related to the lack of HTML5 standards: “When we set to work on the HTML5 generation of our product we thought we would have had offline syncing by now. But unfortunately we don’t because there is no offline mechanism that works in all browsers, and we don’t only want to support one browser.”

“The HTML5 standardisation process has really gone up and down over the years. There are actually three or four different possible implementations for offline syncing being proposed but no one can agree on what the standard should be, and each browser has a different file system approach. A lot of this comes down to browser politics, there are three or four big browser providers and they all have to make it work between them but they all have particular interests at play, too.”

He continued: “It seems sometimes that companies like Apple and Microsoft don’t want to be too good on the browser side because they want to protect their proprietary native applications,” he said. “Google is between a rock and a hard place in more or less the same way. Of course they’re trying to offload this by having Chrome everywhere, which is also their control point, but still they need to be careful not to go against standards too much, as they have with discontinuing CalDAV in favour of their proprietary calendar API for example,” he said, adding that, much like adding offline synchronisation, the recent mobile-focused push on Chrome is in part a bid to nudge people towards Google’s services.

“We’re not yet at the point where the web is as robust as native applications, but we’re getting there,” he concluded.

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