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Web Apps on Windows: Internet Explorer 9 vs. Chrome

As I've noted many times, platforms matter. And while Microsoft was able to set the platform agenda, so to speak, into the early 2000s with its introduction of .NET, since then, developers and users alike have looked elsewhere. Google executives noted at the company's Google I/O show in mid-2010 that all major new application development occurred on the web, and not on proprietary platforms like Windows or Mac OS X. Unfortunately for web-centric companies like Google, however, major application development isn't all web-based: In fact, most modern new applications are created for highly mobile (and, yes, proprietary) platforms, particularly the iOS system that runs Apple's iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch products.

Looking at the world today, and at where I expect things to go in the near-term future--remember, the future of computing is both mobile and connected--it's pretty clear that we're undergoing a major shift away from sprawling, ginormous app suites like Microsoft Office that run on complicated, dated platforms like Windows. Additionally, current trends point to simplicity, both in the underlying platforms and in the apps that run on them. So the web and mobile platforms will both have a role in this future, and while we will continue to run big, complicated OSes on our big, complicated PCs and laptops, much of the work that we are doing, and will be doing, occurs through simpler web apps, not in monolithic, aging native applications.

Microsoft sees this future too. It's watched as developers have largely ignored its modern platform initiatives in favor of the web and mobile apps. And in the next version of Windows, called Windows 8, it will offer what amounts to a last ditch, Hail Mary pass at bridging the gap between the proprietary Windows world and the web, by providing yet another new application infrastructure based largely on web technologies. (Apple, meanwhile, is wisely bringing user experience themes from iOS to its own bloated over-achievement, Mac OS X.)

That Windows 8 future is still some years away, but we can see the beginnings of this transition in an Internet Explorer 9 feature called Pinned Sites, where favorite web sites can be integrated, somewhat, into Windows 7 and treated much like native applications. These pinned sites are essentially specially-treated shortcuts that sit in the Windows 7 taskbar, comingled with shortcuts for native apps. From the user's perspective, this makes plenty of sense: After all, destinations like Gmail and Facebook are just as much "apps," to the user, as are Microsoft Word and iTunes.

The thing is, web sites--excuse me, web apps--and native applications really aren't the same thing, not from a technical perspective. So with Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft is providing technology via its Pinned Sites feature to make these sites (apps) look and work more like real applications.

Of course, Microsoft isn't the first browser maker to offer such functionality. Google Chrome offers a similar feature, called application shortcuts, that also lets you comingle web sites (apps) and native apps on Windows. (And not to beat this to death, but Chrome isn't exactly innovative in this capacity either. Mozilla had a project called Prism that did the same thing for Firefox years ago, and that was based in turn on a previous effort called WebRunner.)

It's unclear why web browser makers would want to emphasize the apps that run on their products instead of the actual browser product. But Microsoft and Google have an important incentive for this evolution. Both companies understand the failures of recent native OS platforms and see the future for what it is. So both companies are integrating web apps into their OS products to make them viable going forward. (In Google's case, of course, the entire platform is web-based, but the theme here is similar.) In other words, this isn't about the browser. It's about the OS.

I'm not going to get into the Chrome OS stuff here per se, but will instead focus on Windows. And both Microsoft and Google offer a way for Windows users to run web apps and native apps side by side. Which is the better solution? And which should you be considering for your own use going forward?

On the surface, both are similar: Through a browser-based mechanism, you can create a shortcut to a favorite web site on the Windows 7 taskbar. However, these solutions vary to a surprising degree once you get into the details.

For example, the IE 9 solution requires Windows 7. But Chrome's application shortcut functionality will work with Windows XP and Vista as well.

IE 9's Pinned Sites feature is designed primarily for creating web app shortcuts on the taskbar, but you can also create these shortcuts, manually, on the desktop. With Chrome, you can choose between three locations--the taskbar, the Start Menu, and the desktop--at the time of creation. This is a superior arrangement, I think, because many users still aren't using the Windows 7 taskbar as an application launcher.

Neither browser makes this functionality particularly discoverable, though IE's method is more seamless. In Chrome, you must navigate to Customize, Tools, and then choose "Create application shortcuts." In IE 9, you can drag and drop the site's icon from the address bar to the taskbar (or desktop). This is a bit friendlier, but it also only creates the single shortcut. (You can also drag down the tab, though that's currently an unusual action.)

From a UI perspective, Chrome-based application shortcuts offer what I think is a better experience, with absolutely no browser "chrome" at all. IE 9 pinned sites, meanwhile, have a colorized and customized IE 9 UI, which takes up lots of vertical space, and creates some confusion because, among other things, the browser Home button has been replaced with a site home button that, inexplicably, is found in a different place in the UI. It's just a bad design.

Consider how a shortcut to Gmail looks with both solutions. With Chrome, the Gmail "app" is lightweight, visually, and offers up no confusing and contradictory browser UI; it's just Gmail. But with IE 9, Gmail picks up a bunch of visual junk from the browser, including the navigation controls, the Favorites bar, the Command bar, and more. And this isn't just visual junk, it's really added bulk and confusion: You can do things like open a new tab from an IE 9 pinned site. Why would you want to do that? Isn't Gmail or Facebook its own app? I can't--and don't want to--open browsers tabs in Microsoft Word.

And while this isn't a fair example because Google hasn't done the customization work necessary for this to look right, the taskbar icon for the IE 9 version of Gmail (on the left) is ugly compared to the Chrome version, which has been customized for this purpose. Some sites provide nice icons for both browsers, but some only do so for one or the other (or neither). Currently, it's kind of a crap shoot.

In use, IE 9's Pinned Sites offer more features, but you need to know how to find them and, after months of testing I can tell you that this functionality is, with rare exception, worthless. In fact, I expect this kind of feature to be as underused and ignored as are Accelerators and Web Slices are today in IE 8. (In fact, I bet 9 out of 10 Windows 7 users have never heard of these features, let alone used them.)

More specifically, IE 9 Pinned Sites offer jump lists, which will likely go down in history as one of Windows 7's least used features, thumbnail preview controls, which only make sense for media-oriented sites like Pandora or last.FM (neither of which, ahem, actually take advantage of this), and icon overlays for displaying status information. This last feature is useful; an email web app could use this to display the number of unread email messages though it should be noted that not even Microsoft's own solutions currently do this.

These features are all well-intentioned, I'm sure, and certainly Microsoft deserves some credit for utilizing some Windows specific features in IE and making them available to web developers. It's a big deal, but I don't believe many sites will utilize this in any meaningful way because few users will ever understand or use pinned sites to begin with, and of those that do, few will bump into sites where this stuff is nicely utilized. And jump lists are already a non-starter.

That doesn't mean that IE 9's Pinned Sites feature is pointless. Indeed, its every bit as useful, even more so in some cases, as is Chrome's application shortcuts. And which you use will depend largely on which presentation you prefer. My advice is to try both for the sites you visit most often and to remember that there's no reason you can't mix and match. I use Chrome for my Gmail, Google Calendar, and Picasaweb shortcuts, for example. But for those sites that do take advantage of IE 9's unique features--like Facebook--that solution works better. (This assumes, of course, that the additional browser crud doesn't bother you with IE 9 pinned sites.)

My advice to Microsoft is simple. First, standardize the location of the home button by putting it where it belongs (to the left of the Back button). Allow users to optionally remove the browser chrome when a pinned site is created so that the web app looks more like a native app and less like IE. And figure out a way to advertise to users when a site they're visiting has actually done the work to customize the experience for IE 9 and the Pinned Sites feature. Otherwise, most users will never even know this stuff is possible.

As a dedicated Windows user who indeed does much of my work online these days, I welcome web/Windows integration features like this and am curious to see how these products evolve in the future. I mix and match Windows applications and web apps all the time. It makes sense for Windows to do this as well.

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