In celebration of the fifth birthday of its Chrome browser, Google announced Thursday a new generation of Chrome Apps. The new apps work offline as well as online, and could represent a major new effort by the technology giant to jump start an app ecosystem on top of the existing major OSes.

In announcing the new apps, Engineering Director Erik Kay wrote on the Google Chrome Blog that they provide "the speed, security Relevant Products/Services and flexibility of the modern Web with the powerful functionality previously available only with software installed on your devices." He said the range of functions included productivity, playing games, and creating "cool content, all from the Web."

The apps currently can be run via a Chrome browser in a Windows environment, or on a Chromebook that uses the Net-based Chrome OS. Versions for Mac and Linux are expected soon. A Chrome App Launcher for Windows appears after the installation of the first Chrome App in that environment, and it resides in the taskbar. Apps launch into their own windows outside of the browser, and can be found through the browser search box.

Pixlr Touch Up, Wunderlist

There are more than 50 apps in the first generation of these new Chrome Apps, including ones for photo editing, to-do lists and games. Pixlr Touch Up provides tools for touching up, cropping, resizing and adjusting photos, and Wunderlist offers voice dictation and desktop notification for keeping a user up-to-date with tasks and teamwork. Cracking Sands is a racing game over 3-D courses that allows users to employ an Xbox controller through USB.

Documents, photos and videos created with the apps can be accessed and saved on a hard drive as well as on Google Drive and other Web services, and the apps can access on-device functions, such as USB- or Bluetooth-connected peripherals, the computer's GPU and storage.

Apps can also generate desktop notifications, such as reminders or updates, and are updated automatically with the latest features and security fixes, unless a user changes the permissions settings. The Chrome browser syncs apps to any desktop device that the registered user signs into, and the apps utilize Chrome's sandboxing and other built-in security features.

The new Chrome Apps could be an experiment that goes nowhere, or they could become a major fork in the evolution of app ecosystems. Google clearly wants to turn its Chrome OS into a full operating system, and this is a way to provide the convenience and performance of local apps for that Net-based environment.

'No Single Leader'

But Chrome Apps will also run offline on Windows, and soon on Mac and Linux systems, which means that, if they catch on, Google could create an app environment on top of the two biggest operating platforms for desktop and laptop computers.

Al Hilwa, program director for Application Development Software research at IDC, told us that Google was doing its best to "make Web apps more like native apps," and that their efforts include improving the performance of its JavaScript engine and API.

One of the problems at the moment with Web apps, he pointed out, is that "there is no single leader for end-to-end tools," so development methodologies are not standardized.

Chrome Apps were first promoted by Google in May, at which time they were called Packaged Apps. Its Chrome Notification Center was launched in July for Windows and Chromebooks, providing pop-up windows outside the main Chrome browser. The app launcher for the Windows taskbar has been shipping to Chrome developers for several months.