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Kiosk mode: How to make Chrome OS do less

With Google tools, you can create, publish, and deploy apps that make Chrome OS devices do even less. That's a good thing. Andy Wolber explains.

Kiosk app menu

School systems and forward-thinking companies that use Google Apps often also choose Chrome OS devices. In part, that's because the devices are easy to manage and use. You simply turn them on, login, and access almost any app on the web.

But sometimes, Chrome OS and the web offer too much.

Imagine a teacher who wants students to write or take a test, or a retailer who wants an in-store system to let customers order items not available at that store, or a museum curator who wants to show visitors an online collection of items not on display, or a manufacturer who needs to provide people access to a database on a shop floor.

With a little work, you can focus a Chrome OS device on a single site or task. For example, I created a sample app that links to the catalog search page for my local library. The site displays in a browser window that lacks the standard URL bar. You can search the catalog or explore any link from the site, but there's no way to enter another URL directly. If I press "home" or leave the system alone for a bit, the system returns to the main catalog search page.

The process takes three steps: create the app, upload it to the Chrome Web Store, then deploy the app to managed Chrome devices. (Even if you don't have managed Chrome devices, you can complete the first two steps to learn how the process works. Use Chrome while logged in to your Google Account for the following steps.)

Create your app

Install Google's Chrome App Builder app from the Chrome Web Store, then launch it. You'll see a new window open with a browser area at the top and an Application Configuration area at the bottom.

Review and fill out each of the Application Configuration fields. The most important field is the homepage field: that's where you paste the URL of your app (or site). For my example, I used http://www.aadl.org/catalog, which is the public catalog search page for my local library.

You may choose to enable or hide:

  • back/forward navigation buttons
  • the home button
  • the page reload button, and/or
  • the restart session button

You select how many minutes to allow before the app returns to the home page or clears browsing data. If you plan to run your app on a Chrome device in kiosk mode, select kiosk mode enabled. You may also specify terms of service that a person must accept before they use your app. When you're done, choose the Export app (or Export kiosk app) button at the bottom of the page. Save the files to a folder (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

Create a Chrome app that points to a single URL with the Chrome App Builder app.

To test your app on your Chrome device, load it as an extension (Figure B). Choose the three-line Chrome menu, select More tools, and click Extensions. If it isn't already checked, select the Developer mode box near the top of the page. When checked, four buttons will appear, including one labeled Load unpacked extension. Select this button, then navigate to the folder where you saved your app files, and choose Open. Your app should display in the list of extensions. Choose Launch to open your app in a new window.

Figure B

Figure B

Load your app as an extension to test your app on your Chrome device quickly.

Add your app to the Chrome Web Store

You'll need establish a Developer Account to upload your app to the Chrome Web Store. (Google charges a $5 one-time registration fee for this to help prevent fraud.) You can use your standard Google Account or a separate account.

Once your Developer Account is setup, Alt-Click on the folder where you stored your app files, then choose Zip selection. On the Developer Dashboard page, choose Add new item, then choose the zip file, and upload it.

Review all the settings for your app. You'll need to create several images of varying sizes for your app: a 1280 x 800 screenshot, a 128 x 128 icon, and at least one 440 x 280 tile image. If you want to run your app in Chrome kiosk mode, you need to make the app Public or Unlisted, not Private.

When you're finished with your selections, choose Publish changes in the lower right corner. This makes the app available in the Chrome Web Store (Figure C).

Figure C

Figure C

When you upload your app to the Chrome Web Store, you'll need to choose Public or Unlisted for the app to work as a kiosk app.

Deploy your app to managed Chrome devices

After your app is published to the Chrome Web Store, a Google Apps Administrator may then deploy the app to managed Chrome devices. (You'll need a Chrome management license for each Chrome device to be enrolled.) Kiosk apps may work either as a public session kiosk or single app kiosk. A public session kiosk allows multiple people to use apps without logging in to the Chrome device. For example, this might be used for testing, where several students would login to an app, but not the Chrome device, over the course of a day. The library catalog app (Figure D) might more often be used in single app kiosk mode: set to run full-screen and to run automatically when the device starts.

Figure D

Figure D

Kiosk apps remove the URL bar and can autostart, run full-screen, and revert to the home screen automatically after a specified interval.

Create, publish, deploy

The combination of Chrome App Builder, the Chrome Web Store, and Chrome management tools makes it possible for non-technical people to create and publish a kiosk mode app for Chrome devices. However, you'll need a Google Apps Admin to deploy the app to Chrome OS devices.

All of these tools turn Chrome into an even more limited device that solves real problems for educators, managers, and retailers. With kiosk mode, less is more.

Have you created or deployed Chrome apps in kiosk mode at your organization? What problem did the apps and kiosks solve? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.

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About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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