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.
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, you can easily create a shortcut to any website with just a few clicks. First, open the menu with by clicking the three dots in the upper-right corner.
From there, head down to the “More tools” entry, then “Add to desktop.”
A dialog box will show up that allows you to rename the the shortcut, as well as have it open in its own window. For a more desktop-like feel, I definitely encourage keeping that button ticked, otherwise it’ll just open in a browser window, and that’s just silly.
This will create a quick link to the website or app on your desktop. From there, you can drag it down to the taskbar to pin it, ensuring it’s always quickly available. I use this feature for web apps like Calmly Writer, How-to Geek’s WordPress, Tweetdeck, Google Calendar, Play Music, Google Keep, Feedly, Google Sheets, and Google Docs. I basically live in the cloud.
Internet Explorer also a similar 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. Note that this doesn’t work in Microsoft Edge, just Internet Explorer. Go figure.
Chrome, Firefox, and Edge 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.
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.
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. If this icon doesn’t show up for you, refresh the page and watch it carefully—it will briefly appear while the page is loading.
You can manage Chrome’s “handlers” feature by opening Chrome’s Settings screen from the menu and jumping into the “Advanced” section.
From here, click “Content Settings” in the Privacy section, then “Manager Handlers.”
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.
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 read 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.
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 the System section.
We’ve come a long way since the “old days” of the web, with web apps becoming an integral part of how you can interact with your computer. In fact, I would assume 90% of all my computer use comes from web apps—from music to documents and work, my PC is essentially a Chrome machine most of the time.
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+.
Cameron Summerson is a self-made geek, Android enthusiast, horror movie fanatic, metalhead, and cyclist. When he’s not pounding keys on the ‘net, you can find him spending time with his wife and kids, chugging away on the 6-string, spinning on the streets, or watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.