So, Chrome improve their add to home screen feature. Yay! Finally! This is great!
Well. It’s sorta great.
There are two ways of viewing the point of “add to home screen”. The first is as a sort of super-powered bookmark. It’s a favourite which you can get at really easily, without having to open the browser and go fishing around in your bookmarks menu. The second way is that it’s essentially “install this app”, but for web apps rather than native apps. And nobody’s very sure what it’s supposed to mean.
This causes tension.
Native apps get to say “install our app” without providing a link, a QR code, whatever: people know how to do that. You can write it on posters or TV adverts: “StuartApp is the greatest new thing! Install from the App Store or Google Play”. And everyone knows what that means: open up the App Store or Google Play app and search for StuartApp, and touch Install. How do you install my web app? Well, the poster could say “install our web app: StuartApp.com”, and I think people would get that they type that into the browser. No problem there. But then installation is a problem, because it’s browser-specific and it’s a pain in the arse. It’s quite difficult to install a web app (by which I mean “bookmark it to the home screen”1) in iOS Safari2, and it’s really difficult in Android Chrome. what Chrome have done now supposedly makes it easier. If your web app is prepared to be installed (it’s got an icon, a manifest, and so forth), Chrome will offer your users the chance to install it when they use it. This is great.
Well. It’s sorta great.
You see, the Chrome team don’t want to hassle users to install apps when they don’t want to. So the automatic “install this” prompt won’t appear until the second day you’re using that web app. This is good from the point of view of not hassling people, and not hassling people is important. But it is no improvement at all for people who want to deliver an app (which is what people have been conditioned to want) but do it on the web (which is the best way to do it, if you can). Before this release, I couldn’t say “install our app: StuartApp.com” (because doing so was too hard), and now I still can’t say it, because you have to come back twice over two days.
How popular would Clash of Clans be if you couldn’t install it until the second day you played it, I wonder?
I get that there are constraints here. What the Chrome team are trying to avoid is having every site you visit say “install me as an app! Install me! DO IT! INSTAAAAAAAALL!” every time you go there, and they are wholly right with this concern. But from a practical perspective, “install my app” when I want to deliver it on the web is no better now than it was a month ago. Which is not forward progress.
There are a couple of pernicious ideas here which should be nipped in the bud. The first is that I’ve seen it suggested that perhaps if you prove to be a good app developer who doesn’t hassle people, maybe those restrictions will be relaxed. But who decides whether you’ve been bad or good? The Google Chrome team. I do not want them to be gatekeepers. I really don’t. The web is a better way at least partially because we’re not praying that a big corporation will let us play in their sandbox. Bringing the iOS/Android approval model to the web defeats the point. If it’s possible to build a web app which provides a better-than-native install experience but only if Google permit it? Not useful. (And Apple are hardly going to implement that.)
The second pernicious thing is people who believe that “bookmark to home screen” means “grant extra privileges”. Specifically, there’s a whole bunch of “aha! They added this to the home screen! That means they trust it! So now we don’t have to do geolocation permission popups!” thinking. This is wrong thinking. Android, which demands all possible permissions up front, is the most eloquent demonstration imaginable of why this is a dreadful idea. And the sausage machine works in reverse here too: if you start with the idea that web apps on the home screen are privileged, then you will instinctively want to make adding to home screen be hard, because it’s an implicit grant of privilege. And so someone who wants discoverability and doesn’t care about free access to the address book gets screwed.
Adding to home screen is not a declaration of trust. It’s a declaration of interest. I want this thing in my life more. I don’t want more of my life in it.
Apple have this right: ask for permissions when you need them, not when the user first uses the app.
So. It is, at least in theory, a good idea to change and incrementally improve the add-to-home-screen experience, and it’s great that the Chrome team are working on this. But I think that as an attempt to make the web install experience easier than the native one, which it really could be… this hasn’t made as much forward progress as we might hope.