Turn your browser into a real complete operating system

Many of us now spend much of our computing time in a web browser, whether that’s streaming movies and music, editing spreadsheets, or posting to social media. There are only a few use cases where a desktop app is essential.

To get the most out of this modern way of working, you can use your browser as the operating system in Windows or macOS. By this we mean using web applications and setting up shortcuts to them in your browser, just as you would for programs in your operating system.

With a few tweaks to your browser of choice and perhaps a third-party tool or extension to help you, you’ll be using your browser more intuitively and productively than ever before.

Browser features

In Google Chrome, you can access your web apps by typing chrome://apps in the browser bar—pin this tab for easy access. For another quick way to access it, click the three dots (top right), then click 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 that it appears on this list of applications, open the site in question then click on the three dots (top right), More toolsand To create a shortcut. Once an app has landed on the Apps page, you can right-click on it to remove it or have it start automatically along with Chrome.

[Related: 10 hidden Google Chrome settings that you need to turn on]

Chrome lets you drag and drop app shortcuts so you have them in any order you want, and you can even set up multiple app pages if you need to. To move an app to another page, click and drag it to one of the arrows on the left or right of the browser window. If an additional page does not exist, Chrome will create one for you.

Chrome is the most comprehensive browser when it comes to letting you create shortcuts to your web apps and using it more like a standalone operating system, perhaps because Google’s browser is developed in tandem with Chrome OS. But there are also similar options available in other popular browsers.

Microsoft Edge was built on the same code, so it works much like Chrome: Type edge://apps in the address bar to see your apps. Click it three points to the upper right corner of the browser interface, 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 already installed. Alternatively, you can save sites as favorites (via the star icon in the address bar) and keep the favorites pane open.

Firefox doesn’t have a web application management tool as such, although you can use bookmarks instead by clicking the star icon in the address bar to save a site. You can also configure web application shortcuts from the new tab page: click the icon cog icon (top right) on the New Tab page to choose the number of shortcuts to display. Then, click the three dots on any shortcut to direct it to a website of your choice.

Safari works similar to Firefox in that you can take advantage of the built-in bookmark system to save websites to a sort of dock or Start menu. Think of the New Tab page as your application launcher: Click the cursors icon (bottom right) to make sure your bookmarks appear at the top, then right click on one of them and choose Rename and Change address to direct them to your favorite web apps.

A variety of third-party tools and extensions will happily customize your browser to be more self-contained and look like an operating system. uTab for Chrome, for example, gives you access to a fully customizable dashboard and launcher that you can modify as you wish. You can configure as many app shortcuts as you want and search the web directly from a unified interface.

Many extensions will take care of application management for you. Tab Session Manager for Firefox is a great example, and once installed it lets you save tabs as groups, keep them in the background in case they’re accidentally closed, and sync 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 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 applications. instead of tabs, so it’s similar to what we mentioned above, but with a few 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 you want to access from the sidebar on the left. Click it + (plus) button to add another shortcut, or right-click on an existing shortcut to edit it. You can even customize different accounts for services like Slack, Gmail, and WhatsApp.

Open a new tab in Sidekick and you get a full launch page, showcasing all the web apps you’ve configured. This page will also include links to documents you’ve created on the web, like the list of recent files you can see in Windows or macOS. As you’d expect, you can customize and customize all of this – just click the gear icon in the toolbar to see the options.

There’s also a lot more to explore in Sidekick. Click the magnifying glass icon in the sidebar to launch the global search tool, for example, which lets you browse all of your web history, documents, apps, and contacts at once. You can also manage multiple sessions, allowing you to separate your personal browsing from your professional browsing. To do this, click on the icon just above the settings cog – it will be a letter indicating the name of the current session.

If you’re someone who doesn’t need more than 10 apps, you can use Sidekick for free. To install unlimited apps, access premium support, special split-view mode, and several other features, you can upgrade from $8 per month.

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