Save computer memory by turning your browser into an operating system
Your browser is more powerful than you think.
Many of us spend a lot of our computing time inside a web browser now—whether that’s streaming movies and music, editing spreadsheets, or posting to social media. There are only a few use cases where a desktop application is essential.
To make the most of this modern way of working, you can use your browser as an operating system within Windows or macOS. By that, we mean using web apps and having shortcuts to them set up inside your browser just as you would for the programs in your operating system.
With a few tweaks inside your browser of choice and perhaps a third-party tool or extension to help, you’ll be using your browser more intuitively and productively than ever before.
In Google Chrome, you can get at your web apps by typing chrome://apps in the browser bar—pin this tab for easy access. For another quick way to get at them, click the three dots (top right), then Bookmarks and Show Bookmarks Bar—right-click on this bar and make sure Show Apps Shortcut is checked.
To add a website (like Gmail or Spotify) so it shows up on this apps list, open the site in question then click the three dots (top right), More Tools, and Create Shortcut. Once an app has made it to the apps page, you can right-click on it to remove it or have it automatically start at the same time as Chrome does.
[Related: 10 hidden Google Chrome settings that you need to turn on]
Chrome lets you drag around app shortcuts so you’ve got them in the order you want, and you’re even able to set up multiple pages of apps if you need to. To move an app to a different page, click and drag it over one of the arrows on the left or right side of the browser window—if an extra page doesn’t exist, Chrome will make one for you.
Chrome is the most comprehensive browser when it comes to letting you create shortcuts to your web apps and use it more like a self-contained operating system—perhaps because Google’s browser is developed in tandem with Chrome OS. But there are similar options available in the other popular browsers as well.
Microsoft Edge was built on the same code so it works a lot like Chrome: Type edge://apps into the address bar to see your apps. Click the three dots towards the top right corner of the browser interface, and then choose Apps. You’ll be able to install the website you’re currently viewing as an app, as well as manage other tools you’ve previously installed. Alternatively, you can save sites as favorites (via the star icon on the address bar) and keep the favorites pane open.
Firefox doesn’t have a web app management tool as such, though you can use bookmarks instead by clicking the star icon inside the address bar to save a site. You can also set up web app shortcuts from the new tab page: Click the cog icon (top right) on the new tab page to choose how many shortcuts to show. Then, click the three dots on any shortcut to point it towards a website of your choice.
Safari operates in a similar way to Firefox in that you can take advantage of the integrated bookmarking system to save websites in a sort of dock or Start menu format. Think of the new tab page as your app launcher: Click the sliders icon (bottom right) to make sure your bookmarks appear at the top, then right-click on any of them and choose Rename and Edit Address to point them towards your favorite web apps.
A variety of third-party tools and extensions will happily customize your browser so it’s more self-enclosed and operating system-like. uTab for Chrome, for example, gives you access to a fully customizable dashboard and launcher that you can tweak however you want—you can set up as many app shortcuts as you need and search the web right from one unified interface.
Plenty of extensions will take care of app management for you. Tab Session Manager for Firefox is a great example, and once it’s installed, it lets you save tabs as groups, keeps them saved in the background in case they get closed down accidentally, and syncs them across multiple computers. The idea is to allow you to manage tabs more like windows in a desktop operating system.
One of the best pieces of software we’ve seen in this regard is Sidekick, which is actually a separate browser—or to be more precise, a browser built on the same code as Chrome and Edge Its mission is to help you work in apps instead of tabs, so it’s similar to what we mentioned above, but with some extra bells and whistles.
[Related: 5 browser extensions that will keep you from drowning in tabs]
Install Sidekick and you’ll be able to choose the web apps that you want to have access to in the sidebar on the left. Click the + (plus) button to add another shortcut, or right-click on an existing shortcut to edit it. You can even customize different accounts for services such as Slack, Gmail, and WhatsApp.
Open up a new tab in Sidekick and you get a comprehensive launcher page, featuring all the web apps that you’ve set up. This page will also include links to documents you’ve created on the web, like the recent files list you can see in Windows or macOS. As you’d expect, you can customize and personalize all of this—just click the cog icon on the toolbar to see the options.
There’s plenty more to explore in Sidekick as well. Click the magnifying glass icon on the sidebar to launch the global search tool for example, which lets you look through all of your web history, documents, apps, and contacts at the same time. You can also manage multiple sessions, allowing you to keep your personal browsing separate from your work browsing. To do this, click the icon just above the settings cog—it’ll be a letter showing the name of the current session.
If you’re someone who doesn’t need any more than 10 apps, you can use Sidekick free of charge. To install an unlimited number of apps, access to premium support, a special split view mode, and several other features, you can get an upgrade starting at $8 a month.