There's a (web) app for that site #

Discovery (i.e., how a user finds apps to install) is an interesting aspect of app stores*. In some ways, discovery is not necessary: a significant appeal of the store is that it catalogs all the apps, so if the user is looking for a todo list or Twitter client, it's pretty obvious what to search for. However, that assumes that the user has a specific need in mind already, and is aware that that class of application exists.

Ads to promote apps are one way to expose users to apps that they hadn't heard of before. More generally, it's interesting to think of other "ambient" mechanisms that piggyback on existing user activities.

Along these lines, I thought I would play around with the Chrome Web Store set of apps. Ideally, if one is browsing a web site that has a corresponding app in the store, a page action icon would appear to indicate this, similarly to feed auto-discovery notification. Conveniently, hosted apps have a urls section in their manifest which indicates which URLs they want to include within the app. This seemed like a pretty good proxy for which URLs the app was "about". I extracted the URL patterns for a bunch of apps, cleaned them up a bit, and used that to implement a Chrome extension (source) which shows the aforementioned page action when visiting pages that match a Chrome Web Store entry.

Once I had that working, it seemed like a straightforward extrapolation to use the history API to also match browser history URLs against app data. When launched the extension shows apps that match history entries, sorted by recency (this is also available via the extension's options page). The fact that the app data lives locally means that all this matching can be done without uploading the history to a server, which is preferable from a privacy perspective.

Installing apps based on visited websites brings up the "aren't web apps just bookmarks?" question. As it turns out, some apps actually show a pretty different UI than the regular website. For example, the New York Times app features the Times Skimmer UI while the Vimeo app uses a "Couch Mode". The other aspect to consider is that bookmarks have several use cases. In addition to being launchers for frequently used sites, bookmarks are also used for gathering collections of items, remembering where to come back later, etc. Special-casing the launcher use case so that it implies "pretty icons on the homepage" may not be such a bad thing, even ignoring the other extra capabilities of apps.

The URL matching approach has its limitations. For example, the Foursquare Maps app doesn't show up for someone who has in their browser history, even though it ostensibly shows Foursquare data. That's because the app uses OAuth to accesses the Foursquare data on the server-side, so it doesn't have URL in its manifest. This sort of limitation could be fixed by allowing an explicit "this app is about this collection of URLs" entry in the manifest, though there are "interesting" implications to allowing an app to associated itself with a website that it doesn't necessarily own. On the plus side, such a mechanism would also allow this approach to be extended to any app store, even non-web app ones.

* "App store" is used generically in this post. Also, these are my idle weekend thoughts, not official Google promulgations.


IMO, An auto-discovery mechanism similar to that of rss/atom feeds (html link tags) can be used here.
CRX-less web apps ( do have such a <link rel="chrome-application-definition" href="..."> element, but they're still an experimental feature that's not ready to be deployed.
Love what you are doing! Keep up the good work!

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