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How to Turn Web Apps Into First-Class Desktop Citizens

chrome-gmail-app-on-desktop

Web apps have been replacing desktop apps for everything from email and document-editing to playing videos and music. You don’t have to keep your web apps confined to a browser window – they can become first-class citizens on your desktop.

Modern browsers allow web apps to have their own place on your taskbar, function as default applications, and even run offline and in the background.

Break Web Apps Out of the Browser

Web apps normally live in the browser, mixed in with other websites you’re viewing and confined to a single browser icon on your taskbar. Chrome and Internet Explorer allow you to create dedicated windows for your web applications, giving them their own separate windows and taskbar icons. Mozilla Firefox used to have this feature through various extensions, but they have been discontinued.

In Google Chrome, access the web application, click the menu button, point to Tools, and select Create application shortcuts.

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Tell Chrome to pin the web app to the taskbar. You can also have Chrome create desktop and start menu shortcuts for your applications if you prefer to launch them from the desktop or Start menu.

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You’ll then be able to launch the web app from a taskbar icon, switching between open web apps like you would desktop programs. The separate window won’t have any address bar or navigation buttons, leaving more room for the web app itself.

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Internet Explorer also has this feature – just drag and drop a website’s favicon (the icon to the left of its address in the address bar) to the taskbar to create a dedicated window for the application.

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Use Pinned Tabs

Chrome and Firefox also support “pinned tabs,” which allow you to keep a web application running without taking up much room on your tab bar. To turn an open tab into an app tab, right-click a tab in Chrome or Firefox and select Pin tab.

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The tab will shrink to its favicon only. When you close and re-open your browser, the pinned tabs will remain open, so this is a convenient way of telling your browser to always open web apps (and other web pages) you use frequently.

pinned-tabs-in-firefox

Make Web Apps Your Default Apps

Modern browsers allow you to set web apps as your default application. For example, you can set Gmail as your default email app so it will open in your browser whenever you click a mailto: link in your browser or anywhere else in your operating system.

To do this in Chrome, visit a website that can become your default application for a certain task, such as Gmail for email or Google Calendar for calendar links. An icon in the location bar will appear and allow you to make the web app your default application.

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You can manage Chrome’s “handlers” feature by opening Chrome’s Settings screen from its menu, clicking the Show advanced settings link, clicking Content settings under Privacy, and clicking Manage handlers under Handlers.

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Firefox allows you to control the applications Firefox users for various types of links from its options window. Select the Applications icon to change the action associated with various types of content. For example, you can use Gmail or Yahoo! Mail for email links, Mibbit for IRC links, Google Calendar or 30 Boxes for webcal links, and so on.

use-gmail-as-mailto-handler-in-firefox

Enable Offline Web Apps

Desktop applications have one big advantage over web apps – they can generally be used offline, while web apps cannot. This isn’t a problem much of the time, but if you want to do your email, view your calendar, or edit a document on an airplane or in an area with a spotty Internet connection, it can be obnoxious.

However, many web apps do support offline features. Apps like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs have offline support in Google’s own Chrome browser, but unfortunately not in Firefox. Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader works offline in both Chrome and Firefox, giving you offline access to downloaded Kindle books.

If you’re a Chrome user, you can view web apps that support offline access by browsing the offline-enabled apps section in Google’s Chrome Web Store.

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Run Web Apps in the Background

Chrome also allows web apps to run in the background, even when Chrome doesn’t appear to be running. This allows apps like Gmail Offline to continue syncing Gmail to your PC for offline use, even when no Chrome browser windows are open.

This feature is enabled by default. You can optionally disable it by opening Chrome’s Settings screen, clicking Show advanced settings, and unchecking the Continue running background apps when Google Chrome is closed check box under Background apps.

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Try Chrome’s Web App Launcher

Chrome has a Chrome OS-like application launcher that’s currently buried on the experimental about:flags page. It may one day be a standard Chrome feature, but for the meantime, you can enable it yourself on the about:flags page. This menu gives you a taskbar icon that allows you to browse and launch your installed Chrome web apps. If functions as a sort of Start menu for web apps.


Web apps are still missing a few integration features – for example, music-playing applications can’t hook into the pause/forward/back hotkeys on your keyboard – but we have come a long way from accessing Hotmail in Internet Explorer 4 on Windows 98.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 03/23/13

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