Web Applications

After being in a radio show (german) about web browsers recently and reading all that hype about client side web applications, I got more and more thinking. I can’t see really the use case now and I wonder if I’m that alone with this opinion. But let me explain my thoughts on it.

For now there are several kinds of client side web applications. There are text processors, photo managing tools, presentation slides editors, spreadsheets etc etc. But is there a real use for them. Personally I’d rather have my text processor on my hard disk, I’m also not processing my camera RAW pictures in a web browser and so on. For all of these serious tasks there is already software exactly suited for the job. Its hard to imagine that one day an online text processor would outperform Word, Pages or even editors like Textmate or Eclipse.

There is also no real advantage to do these kind of tasks within the browser. Even the software, although it is distributed directly through the net, is practically on your hard disk and the whole purpose and the recent efforts are about making these web applications run in your browser even when you’re offline.

So your work is kind of stored on your machine within the browser context, the software you’re using is on your machine and you don’t even have to be online to work with it. It just doesn’t sound like a web application.

The whole point of doing something in the web is to connect people and information. There were plenty of implementations of Hypertext prior to its premiere in the world wide web. Bringing this concept to the web also brought a very useful extension. Rather than creating local hyperlinks only you could set hyperlinks to completely different servers across the whole planet. You could connect information that was impossible to connect before. The web is also a lot about communication these days. Look at these endless lists of online communities or projects like twitter. Its about connecting people, sharing and distributing information.

A word processor simply doesn’t make sense within the web context without making explicitly use of these features of the web which I just mentioned. Now managing my photos online only makes sense if I want to share them. Flickr is the perfect example for that. You have a very good chance improving flickrs user experience by using frameworks like the recently hyped sproutcore to make everything look like serious application environment but it is only an enhancement to a service that had no desktop equivalent before.

Webmail is kind of the same story, told from a different angle. There are a lot of desktop mail client applications. Still there are also a lot of webmail interfaces out there. GMail is probably one of the most famous ones as its making heavy use of client side javascript to make the whole interface feel like an application rather than like a website. Webmail has several reasons why it exists. You need webmail when you travel without your own computer and you want to check mails. But that is only because your mails are online. You have to go online to work with the medium mail.

So when there is a web application that is more or less cloning an existing desktop application without adding capabilities that are unique to the web environment, it is completely useless. Why I create my presentation with a 10 times slower version of keynote online? Why would I edit my photos online where I have limited tools and therefor limited possibilities? Why would anyone re-implement the Desktop itself in a web application when it has no features could really need?

Check the EyeOS Website. I mean hello? When I read about it I imagined a person who doesn’t have a graphical operating system but wants to have a desktop like look and feel on the screen. This person than decides to install a browser in order to use EyeOS’s web based desktop. Thats the only use case I can come up with. They’ve entirely forgotten what the web is and what it is good for.

In the end your favorite web application is currently not available due some stability or scaling issues or maybe both. Now you’re sitting there, can’t edit your documents, can’t manage your mails, can’t work with your photos, can’t access your bookmarks etc etc. In this scenario you got one new major dependency to able to work. It isn’t enough that your computer works and that you have the proper software installed, you must also hope to get a decent internet connection without people in the same cloud sucking all the precious bandwidth with their heavy downloads etc.

I know I’m exaggerating here quite a bit. Apologies.

My point is that I’m not against the idea of client side web application. Not at all – the recent developments and achievements are truly awesome. in fact, before writing this post I played around with sproutcore. I’m just against this whole hype of cloning the desktop experience into the web without any sense for the web itself. I think we should rather focus on enhancing and developing present and new concepts which progressively explore the possibilities the web offers for us. Think Wikipedia not Word. Think flickr not iPhoto. Sync, aggregate, share and communicate over the web rather than building self contained and therefor boring and uninteresting islands.

I mean sure, Keynote or iPhoto in the web browser is impressive but – yeah – thats basically it. Wikipedia is a lot more impressive, even with a old school interface.

But we’ll see how far everything goes, with client side storage and all that. In my opinion though the whole “software distributed through the browser” thing is as visionary or useful as the 3D desktop.

3 Responses to Web Applications

  1. Ciao. I agree. Except I do see one huge usecase: Imagine going to the US. Imagine having your whole stuff on your laptop. Imagine it being searched by the officials and copying down important and protected user data, that you have signed an ageement to keep secure under penalty. No use – your laptop is away for another couple of months for “copyright infringement”.

    Lucky you, if you got a backup. Hell, it’s home, right? bad luck.

    Imagine having your stuff online, where lost of Computer, Fucked Up hard drive, battery failure etc. would not affect your productivity.

    But the internet is a bottleneck you’ll say – true! And that’s the whole point in the equation: What is most probable to happen: losing your laptop in a bus(very probable) or hard drive fuckup(very probable) or the lost of your data in a heavily protected RAID in a datawarehouse (well, sure, it _could_ happen) ?

    So, having access to your data on the net without your laptop, without the need to take heavy computers everywhere you go is actually an advantage. I would prefer to have both. Storing data on Dropbox online and having access in case of hardware failure and still being able to run optimized performant applications on my favorite platform.

    The thing is, if you do use those webapps, and the internet fucks up (as you posted) – it’s good that you would be able to keep working, because those apps do work offline as well and cache your work. There’s no point in using them without online access. There is a point in using them with a br0ken internet connection. I’d prefer them to an online only app which does not work at all when offline.

    Further than that, I agree that simpley adaptation of classical apps to the web without the online-connectedness-advantage is useless. Why people still pursue this road? Because, after all this java OS-platform-independence-experience the webapps are actually a working way to publish software that is truly platform independent working on an iphone as well as on the mac or whatever else. And, interestingly enough, this is not even a major argument brought up by the authors themselves.

  2. Data storage in the web is something completely different. I have lots of my data online, in redundant systems but my blogging software runs on my computer natively – not in the browser, I read my rss feeds with netnewswire, I twitter with twhirl which is an adobe air twitter client, i post my photos from aperture directly to flickr and I communicate with IM clients which store their buddy lists on the server. I have absolutely nothing against online data storage, caching and syncing as I mentioned above. Actually that was one of my arguments which I couldn’t make clear I think.

    Now I mentioned a few apps that have online counter parts. Imagine you have all these apps in your Firefox open. Newsreader, Mail, InstantMessenger, Blogging Software, Twitter etc. etc. How well you think will the browser perform ? Will you have some resources left to actually browse through the web ? 😉

  3. Ciao. I agree. Except I do see one huge usecase: Imagine going to the US. Imagine having your whole stuff on your laptop. Imagine it being searched by the officials and copying down important and protected user data, that you have signed an ageement to keep secure under penalty. No use – your laptop is away for another couple of months for “copyright infringement”.

    Lucky you, if you got a backup. Hell, it’s home, right? bad luck.

    Imagine having your stuff online, where lost of Computer, Fucked Up hard drive, battery failure etc. would not affect your productivity.

    But the internet is a bottleneck you’ll say – true! And that’s the whole point in the equation: What is most probable to happen: losing your laptop in a bus(very probable) or hard drive fuckup(very probable) or the lost of your data in a heavily protected RAID in a datawarehouse (well, sure, it _could_ happen) ?

    So, having access to your data on the net without your laptop, without the need to take heavy computers everywhere you go is actually an advantage. I would prefer to have both. Storing data on Dropbox online and having access in case of hardware failure and still being able to run optimized performant applications on my favorite platform.

    The thing is, if you do use those webapps, and the internet fucks up (as you posted) – it’s good that you would be able to keep working, because those apps do work offline as well and cache your work. There’s no point in using them without online access. There is a point in using them with a br0ken internet connection. I’d prefer them to an online only app which does not work at all when offline.

    Further than that, I agree that simpley adaptation of classical apps to the web without the online-connectedness-advantage is useless. Why people still pursue this road? Because, after all this java OS-platform-independence-experience the webapps are actually a working way to publish software that is truly platform independent working on an iphone as well as on the mac or whatever else. And, interestingly enough, this is not even a major argument brought up by the authors themselves.

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