Are you a frequent user of web apps? Would you prefer them to be more integrated into your desktop? The Epiphany browser can do just that and this article will show you how.
For me, web apps feel a bit removed from the computing experience. I’d like them to integrate with my desktop more to make it easier and faster to launch them. Most browsers don’t offer this type of integration, so you have to load the browser, navigate to the web app and then login to the web app. Epiphany browser provides tools to seamlessly integrate web apps into the desktop as well as make the web app experience more enjoyable.
Epiphany, aka GNOME Web
Epiphany is a browser developed by the GNOME Project with a focus on browser fundamentals and minimalism. The GNOME Project’s software stack, like the GNOME Desktop Environment and the GTK+ toolkit, is so good you’ll see other developers basing their projects on GNOME, resulting in many other Gnome-Based Desktop Environments. Epiphany is another great piece of software from the GNOME Project but for some reason it doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
Let’s take a look at why it should get more attention.
Epiphany, or more commonly referred to as “Web” by GNOME, has struggled for a while to gain marketshare, but their Application Mode is a feature that I think will change the future of Epiphany for the better. Epiphany makes Desktop web apps easy to create, use, and manage so web apps like Telegram, Spotify, TweetDeck, Mint.com, Tomato.es (Pomodoro), and many more can utilize desktop integration and proper session management, giving them a more native feel.
Is it “Epiphany” or Just “Web”?
Before we continue, let’s address the elephant in the room. Epiphany is now known by two names: “Epiphany” and the simpler “Web”. GNOME has decided to re-brand most of their applications to generic terms, in order to make it easier for users to find what they want, once the applications are installed. I think this approach is good, bad, and even ugly; while it solves some issues, it also creates others.
- The Good: if you are looking for a web browser in your pre-installed applications, seeing “Web” makes sense.
- The Bad: GNOME decided to re-brand applications in only the front-end names so Web is still named “epiphany” or “epiphany-browser” in every respository and in every Linux distro. This creates confusion because when articles/tutorials talk about Web but don’t mention the “epiphany” package name.
- The Ugly: re-branding Epiphany might make it easier to find if already installed, but in every other scenario it causes confusion.
How ugly could it get?
Let’s say a user needs help so they go search on Google, or DuckDuckGo (my favorite). What would they search for? Perhaps, they’d search for “Web browser” but that’s so generic the vast amount of irrelevant noise would bury any useful results. They might try to narrow it down by adding “Linux” or adding their distro, thus searching for “Linux Web browser” or “Ubuntu Web browser” but still, the irrelevant results are too much. What’s left?
If the user were to search for “GNOME Web browser” they will find relevant results, but such a search would require knowledge that the project is based on GNOME. On the other hand, if you were to search for “epiphany browser” you’d immediately get relevant results and from there you can get the help you need. It seems likely that this name change is going to hurt Epiphany in the long term, if it hasn’t already.
Epiphany’s Application Mode
Epiphany comes with all the essentials of a good web-browsing experience by providing a built-in Ad Blocker, Code Inspector, Bookmarks, History, Cookie Management, the Webkit rendering engine, and more – but the thing that makes Epiphany compelling to me, is its great Application Mode.
This is the system used to create desktop integrated web apps with features like Individual Session Management, Menu Integration with all desktop environments, an Application Manager, and an easy to use Graphical User Interface (GUI). All of the features of the Application Mode are great, but it is the Individual Session Management that I consider the most important. We looked at how to create a Netflix web app via Google Chrome and while Chrome is needed for that due to the HTML5 DRM (Digital Rights Management), Chrome’s web app tools are quite poor. Google Chrome’s web app shares the same session with Chrome itself, so you can only create a single web app per service, something that is far from ideal.
Epiphany’s Individual Session Management provides the ability to create as many desktop integrated web apps as you’d like, regardless of how many accounts you may have on a service, and it means you can use them all simultaneously.
Gmail would be a great example for this because how many times a day do you login to one Gmail account, logout, login to another, and repeat this tedious process? I used to do this often, but with Epiphany, I have desktop web apps for each of my Gmail accounts so I can effortlessly launch any of my Gmail accounts without having to deal with the login process.
I can even launch my Gmail accounts simultaneously, without any login issues.
Creating Desktop web apps with Epiphany
Now that you’re informed about why Epiphany is a great, let’s start making some web apps. The first thing you’ll need to do is install Epiphany;, while this should be straightforward there is something you need to know before you start.
Most Linux distributions have Epiphany’s package name in their repository as “epiphany”, as you would expect, but Debian and distros based on Debian (Ubuntu, Mint, Kubuntu, etc.) all have it named “epiphany-browser”. The reason for this naming difference is because Debian has an approach of “first come, first serve” and because of this approach a game was added to the Debian repository as “epiphany” before the browser thus the browser was forced to use “epiphany-browser”.
Note – I’m going to use Debian / Ubuntu based instructions for this guide but the install command is the only thing that will be different. so just change to command to the tool of your chosen distro.
sudo apt install epiphany-browser
Once installed, launch Epiphany from your system’s main menu – as noted earlier you’ll see it listed as Web instead of Epiphany. Navigate to a website or web app that you’d like to create a Desktop web app for and click the Gear/Cog icon on the top right of the application. In the menu that displays, choose Save As Web Application…. If you plan on doing this a lot, then in the future you can just press Ctrl+Shift+A on your keyboard to streamline the process of creating these web apps.
A new window will appear asking you to name the web app, it will automatically suggest a name to you but I recommend using a naming scheme that will help you identify the web apps later on.
For example, if I wanted to make a Twitter web app for @MichaelTunnell and @MakeUseOf then I would name them Twitter-MichaelTunnell and Twitter-MakeUseOf, which will ensure accurate sorting in the system menus.
Managing Epiphany web apps
Epiphany has a simple but great Application Manager built-in which is another reason why Epiphany is a much better solution than Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome. The Application Manager is quite good but unfortunately it is currently a little tricky to find.
You’ll need to open a New Tab in the normal mode of Epiphany, type about:applications into the navigation bar and press Enter. (I’ve submitted a request to the GNOME/Epiphany Team to add an “Application Manager” menu option in the gear/cog menu, in bug #755076, and I’m glad to inform you that the developers agreed to add the feature to a future version.)
Drawbacks, Are there Any?
Yes, there are some drawbacks to Epiphany web apps – but not many. I already mentioned one such drawback, finding the Application Manager; but beyond this, I feel there should be an ability to load web apps in a “chromeless” style so that the Epiphany GUI elements do not show to the user. While the GUI elements are useful in that they provide easy access to Back, Forward and Refresh tools, some web apps, like TweetDeck, load in a single page structure so you don’t ever need to use these elements with these kinds of web apps.
(I requested that this feature be added but so far I haven’t had any luck convincing the developers of creating this feature. If you’d like to have that feature as well then you can comment on the request in bug #755015.)
Finally, Stability Focused distros do not offer backporting updates to older versions of the distro. Backporting is taking a newer version of an application that is working on the current version of the distro and making it work on older versions of that distro. This lack of backports means that Ubuntu users will only have the latest version if they upgrade to the newest version of Ubuntu every 6 months while if they choose to stay on 14.04 then they will always have version 3.10. This is more of a problem in distros like Linux Mint though because Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu LTS (14.04) and since Mint will keep 14.04 as their base until mid-2016, they won’t get a new version of Epiphany until then.
Have You Had an Epiphany?
In my opinion, the few drawbacks that Epiphany has pale in comparison to the great functionality it provides so I think this is a great choice for Desktop web apps and I’ll continue to use it on my system regardless of how old the version is because even the older versions are pretty great.
What do you think of Epiphany? Do you use it or do you prefer something else? Let me know in the comments below.