So, you just got your new Chromebook out of its box, turned it on, logged in, and then – nothing, huh? Where exactly do you go from that blank, soothing wallpaper you’re looking at? Maybe you’ve even had your Chromebook for quite some time feel the same way. Chromebooks were intentionally designed without a traditional ‘desktop’ to store icons or programs on as it’s a redundancy, so how do you get your bearings? Sure, you could open the ‘Everything button’ and search for Facebook, Amazon, or any other website you normally visit, but once you close them, they’re gone.
The same goes for your favorites or bookmarks – you could certainly mark these websites for later viewing and easy access, but they’re just text links and once you close the Chrome browser, they’re out of sight and out of mind. So does that mean that Chromebooks are just a web-browser in a box? Well, no. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Today, we’re going to teach you how to turn any website in the world into a visual ‘app’ icon or ‘web application’ (frequently called a ‘shortcut’) that you can easily access to get the most out of your Chromebook!
What exactly are web applications?
A web application or ‘web app’ for short is a piece of software that runs on a web server or a remote computer instead of being installed locally on your machine like traditional software applications. A web app differs from a static website because it provides interactive functionality as well. Whether or not you realize it, web apps have been around for a long time and have become quite powerful over the past decade. They’re changing the way we think of computing and in many cases, replacing traditional software applications! Since most websites that you frequent on the internet provide some level of interactivity, you can just call them websites for now.
Think about it – for the average user, websites provide all or most of their day to day needs. They can shop, communicate with family and friends, pay bills, order takeout, and more. Nowadays though, web apps are capable of so much more. For example, did you know that you can edit videos, create logos and print materials, and even play or develop games right through the Chrome browser? For all intents and purposes, most users won’t care whether they install an app or a web app, so long as it provides the same or similar functionality. So far as it matters to many, they’re all just ‘apps’.
Because of their power and versatility, web apps are a Chromebook’s secret weapon and the future of computing! While the Google Play Store offers a lot of these things, most Android apps aren’t really optimized for a laptop user experience, but web apps are. Besides, they take zero storage space, can be organized neatly in Chromebook launcher and they synchronize to your Google account, so they’ll come with you to your next Chromebook automatically, just in case something happens to your laptop.
How to turn any website into an icon
So, stop opening frequently used websites as Chrome browser tabs and start harnessing their power in a more exciting way by turning them into icons! Doing so will truly make your Chromebook feel like home, especially if you’re coming from another operating system. Make a list of all of the websites you visit on an average day or week. Now, open them one by one in the Chrome browser and follow these simple instructions:
1. Visit your website of choice
2. At the top right of the web browser, click the three vertical dots (the ‘more’ menu)
3. Three-quarters of the way down the menu, you’ll see ‘More tools’ – click that
4. Move your mouse over to the new menu that’s popped up to the left of it and click ‘Create Shortcut…’
5. You’ll see a dialog box appear at the top center of your screen. Check the box that says ‘open as window’ (This allows it to open in its own standalone window with its own icon) and click the blue ‘Create’ button.
6. That’s it! You’ll see the newly created web app icon on your Chromebook shelf at the bottom. It will also show up in your launcher. Enjoy!
What’s happening here is that Google has provided you with a way of stealing a copy of a website’s favicon and title text so that it can feel like a piece of local software on your Chromebook. ‘Open as window’ allows you to separate that website into its own window and removes the Google Chrome search bar or Omnibox and tabs from the top of it. Splitting your favorite website from the browser allows you to focus on what’s important. If you open the Gmail icon, for example, you’re there for Gmail, so there’s no reason to jump to other websites or search the open internet from within that window. Instead, use your Chromebook’s ‘Everything button’ or keyboard search button for that!
It’s also nice to manage all of your ‘tasks’ or windows from the bottom shelf instead of having a thousand Chrome tabs open. While tab groups do help mitigate this, I personally find that app windows feel more natural, but to each his or her own! If a web app icon turns out blurry upon creating your shortcut, (We’re looking at you, Suntrust Bank, you blurry porcupine, you) or just shows a generic colored block with the first letter of the website name in it, this is due to the web developer not uploading a favicon or a high-resolution one at that. We’ll be publishing a list of recommended web apps later today that you can take advantage of, so stay tuned!
What does the future hold?
We are in our infancy with our acceptance of powerful web applications as a standard. One day, we’ll look back on this and realize how silly it was to have to hunt these down and add them to our devices manually. As web applications become more powerful and useful, they continue to become more ingrained in our culture in the same way that traditional apps and software have. As they mature into what are called ‘Progressive Web Apps‘, many sites are also gaining app-like features. One-click installs via the browser’s Omnibox, shortcut menus, touch and swipe controls, and even the ability to work offline in some capacity will one day, for the most part, make websites indistinguishable from their Android app counterparts! Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides are one example of this.
We’ve already spoken at length about web applications on Chromebooks and why we think Google should revitalize their aging Chrome Web Store for the task, but with the Google Play Store starting to show signs of housing PWAs like Google Photos and Google News, this may no longer be necessary. Of course, a revamp of the web-based version of the Play Store would also be appreciated, but we’ll take one gift at a time.
If you hear someone say that Chromebooks suck because they’re just a ‘web-browser in a box’, it’s probably for one of two reasons – they’re either a power user who legitimately found that the most powerful web apps aren’t quite there yet and can’t provide the tools they’re looking for in order to replace their Windows or Mac workflow or they simply jumped on the bandwagon and have done zero research into what web apps provide in modern-day all the while ignoring the benefits they constantly experience from them. It doesn’t help that Google isn’t exactly providing users with a central location to wrangle the open web and its possibilities instead of leaving them to do it themselves. Without such a tool, the potential is much less tangible than traditional software that you download and launch with a visual icon.
Outside of those familiar with Chromebooks, most users probably wouldn’t think to personalize their laptop by creating a shortcut out of their favorite websites and I think that this dampens the user experience greatly. For now, though, I hope that you take advantage of these tips and tricks to supercharge your new or existing Chromebook and get the most out of it while we wait for new advancements in web app technology!