Minded Systems

The Fate Of A Web Store

With Google I/O 2016 immanent the rumor machines have targeted the big G and are firing at will. One recurring tale that keeps popping up is the Play Store to make some type of appearance in ChromeOS this year. So where will this leave the Chrome Web Store? Will it become the “avoided in-laws” of the Google-verse? Perhaps it will take on a branding role for an underlying Play Store within Chrome experiences. Or maybe the Chrome Web Store will end up right next to the empty box of Hamburger Helper and sentiments of Google Reader users; in a primary-colored recycling bin waiting to be tossed.

That being said, I don’t think any of these will be the fate of the Chrome Web Store. I do expect change but much of that could be driven by the nature of the two platforms themselves.

The two storefronts offer very different types of software for distribution. The Play Store sticks to the traditional installed app while the Chrome Web Store provides access to “extensions” and “Chrome apps”. While neither of these explicitly identify as HTML5 widgets, they are HTML5 widgets. Perhaps “widgets” is an over-simplified term to describe them they are in essence small HTML5 components. While I respect the fact that many apps are themselves just HTML5 wrapped in an app bundle, the point is how these two software types run. Play Store apps run as individual software processes on the Android Runtime (ART) directly. Chrome apps and extensions however rendered via Chrome; which is the app that runs on the software runtime stack of whatever OS it happens to be operating on (as Chrome runs on more than just Android). The difference in software operation comes with a variety of consequences, many of which could influence the fate of the Chrome Web Store should the Play Store find itself on ChromeOS.

Both software distribution systems require developers to agree to terms and conditions of use. And in both cases, developers must pay an certain monetary amount for the usage of the platforms. Generally speaking, the Play Store agreement requires developers to pay $25 USD every year and the Chrome Web Store agreement requires a one-time $5 USD payment for access. Obviously there is a monetary difference here (since bandwidth ain’t cheap) but the term of the agreements is of greater interest. Going back to the nature of installed Play Store apps; this distribution system requires ongoing usage for issuing updates. The Chrome Web Store distributes manifests that provide Chrome the information required to maintain the HTML5 components directly, removing the need for the Chrome Web Store to be involved in further operations like updates.

Assuming a developer wants to reach ChromeOS users and that both stores are available, why would one choose to pay more than absolutely necessary to access these users? Play Store apps that are installed operate locally and independently. This affords them access to more privileged OS functions, direct hardware connectivity, and more. Chrome apps and extensions operate within Chrome and are thus limited to whatever is made accessible to them via Chrome and its underlying Blink engine. Chrome APIs do provide access to a variety of hardware components for things like audio, video, location, and others; but it does not provide full access nor does it provide a complete breadth of access to available device components. The intended functionality of an app can often determine what storefront agreement it requires by the nature of its requirements.

Its also worth mentioning platform perception. Android’s global dominance gives clout and public faith in it’s staples like the Play Store. How many regular everyday people that use Chrome have even opened the Web Store? Without out doing any real research, I would expect that a significantly smaller ration of Chrome users have ever used the Web Store compared to Android users that have used the Play Store. The perception and trust that comes with this kind of software relationship is invaluable for end-user interactions.

So can the two platforms co-exist? Is there even a reason for them to co-exist? More importantly, what’s in it for Google? Google is, after all, a business just like any other business and looking out for it’s best interests. I think Google sees value in a ‘developer dichotomy’. There are a lot of people out there that understand basic web technologies like HTML5 and simple Javascript. A minimal one-time fee and agreement provides and extremely low barrier to entry. A trusted and widely available platform like the Play Store provides a convenient distribution vehicle for this “mid-range software” and serves Google by creating a additional “class” of developers to a certain extent. Developers that are able to participate and publish in the Play Store without needing to be a full-time code writer. Suddenly, people from all types of vocations and locations with some basic web-coding knowledge become potential “Play Store developers”.


AMENDMENT: Shortly before the publishing of this article, Google released the schedule for Google I/O 2016. Several pre-published sessions are centered around “Progressive” and “offline-first” web apps. All pre-published session for the “Mobile Web” category have a mysterious absence of any reference to Chrome but are littered with things like “Polymer”, “offline installable” and the aforementioned “progressive web app”. I’m already forgetting about the Chrome Web Store.

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