I started a new job recently, and was pleased to learn they used the Google Workspace suite of applications for daily business tasks. I did have some experience with Google Workspace (then called GSuite) prior to my current job, but the bulk of my professional career has been with companies that used Microsoft Office. What I love about Google Workspace applications like Docs, Sheets, and Slides is the simplicity with which files can be shared for collaboration with people (both internal and external to your organization). Microsoft’s native desktop applications like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are undoubtedly much more powerful and feature packed than the web-based Google Workspace apps, but I find the user experience of sharing and collaborating on documents with Microsoft Office to be not as enjoyable as Google. I won’t get too opinionated on this topic, however. This post is to share how I created a more “desktop-like” experience with the browser-based Google Workspace applications.
The main drawback to Google Workspace, in my opinion, is that all apps are entirely browser-based. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. Browser-based apps provide the flexibility of being able to access them from any device, without the need to install any software. However, I like to keep my browser tabs organized, and I found myself needing to keep certain tabs open all the time for things like Gmail, Google Calendar, and various documents I was frequently editing or referring back to. Every subsequent document I needed to open would be in a new tab, and additional apps like Google Drive and Meet also further cluttered my browser tabs. That left me with a whole bunch of apps, and just one icon on my taskbar (for the Chrome browser). What I really wanted was a more desktop-like experience – the ability launch Google apps like GMail, Calendar, Drive, and Meet from the Start menu or taskbar, and have them running in separate windows on my desktop.
To accomplish this, I used the “Create shortcut” feature found in Chrome. For each of the Chrome web apps I wanted to use as a desktop app, I loaded the page, clicked the Chrome menu button (the button with three dots in the upper right corner), selected “More tools” and then “Create shortcut.”
I was then prompted to confirm the name of the shortcut, as well as whether or not I want to open the shortcut as a window. I made sure this option was checked as that will create the desktop-like behavior I desired.
This will create a shortcut on the desktop, as well as an entry in the Start Menu:
I pinned all the Google Workspace apps for which I had made a shortcut to the start menu:
It is also worth noting that I was able to accomplish the same thing in Linux (Mint ver 20.1) as I was able to in Windows 10.
I didn’t like the default icon for the Google Calendar shortcut in Windows so I used my own. The app shortcut files can be found in this folder:
C:\Users\YourUserName\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Chrome Apps\
I right clicked the shortcut, and then clicked “Properties.” Inside the Properties dialog box, I clicked the “Shortcut” tab, then “Change Icon…” and navigated to a .ico file I wanted to use:
I repeated these steps for all the Google Workspace apps I wanted to use as separate apps/windows. This provides a user experience that is closer to that of native desktop applications, where each of these apps opens in their own window, has their own icon on the taskbar when launched, and each can be moved/resized independently.
I can also Alt + Tab through all the open Google Workspace apps just like any other desktop application; I would be unable to do so if each was open in a browser tab
To complete the desktop-like experience, I installed the Checker Plus for Gmail and Checker Plus for Google Calendar Chrome extensions by Jason Savard. The built-in desktop notifications which can be configured in the Chrome settings leave a lot to be desired as far as customization. In some cases, I observed that the notifications are buggy or display inconsistently, and at the time of writing this, I was not able to get desktop notifications for Gmail to work at all. I disabled notifications in the Chrome settings for the Gmail and Google Calendar urls, and rely on the Checker Plus extensions for receiving native OS desktop notifications from these two Google Workspace apps. Clicking a Gmail notification yields the desired behavior by opening the dedicated Gmail app window, and not a new tab in the browser.
The Gmail and Calendar Checker Plus extensions are feature-rich, allowing the user to customize the content, styles, buttons, and other properties of notifications sent by Gmail and Calendar – I highly recommend supporting them by contributing to the developer!
The end result is, for me, a better overall UX than simply using Google Workspace apps in browser tabs. There is definitely some room for improvement, however. Google Docs doesn’t work as expected, documents opened via the app ‘s menu open a new browser tab instead of opening in the same app window. However, I’ve read that Google may be working to offer their Workspace apps as Progressive Web Apps in the future, and could close the web/desktop application gap further.
Microsoft Edge, another Chromium-based browser, also offers similar functionality, which can be accessed via the Edge Menu > Apps > Install this site as an app. I hope this helps; please feel free to comment or contact me with any questions 😎