Tag Archives: Software engineering

It’s Not the “Death” of Microsoft, it’s the “Death” of Software

Paul Graham writes an interesting obituary of Microsoft, killed off, as he sees it, by applications that sit in your browser. It’s just a matter of time, he says, before every application we need can grabbed off the server.

This is the kind of established wisdom of Web 2.0 folks these days that prompts only howls of “old news”. In some senses it’s right. I don’t use an email client anymore, nor a news/RSS reader. I try to use a calendar app like Outlook as little as possible. I even use Google Docs sometimes. But we’re a long way from interesting, complex applications running in the browser.

The problem: Most web applications are broken, and if we were paying for them, or Microsoft were making them, we’d be howling. Google Docs’ word processor, for example, quickly breaks down on bigger documents (weird artefacts appear in the text, keyboard shortcuts stop doing what they’re supposed to.) Its spreadsheet program mangles spreadsheets. The functionality in both is extremely limited for anything more than the most basic tasks.

All this takes us to a weird place: We somehow demand less and less from our software, so that we can declare a sort of victory. I love a lot of Web 2.0 apps but I’m not going to kid myself: They do one simple thing well — handle my tasks, say — or they are good at collaboration. They also load more quickly than their offline equivalents. But this is because, overall, they do less. When we want our software to do less quicker, they’re good. Otherwise they’re a pale imitation of more powerful, exciting applications in which we do most of our work.

Like what? Well, what have I got running on my (Windows) desktop right now:

  • BlogJet — blog writing tool. Online equivalent: Blog service tool. Difference: BlogJet more powerful than its browser equivalent, no latency, lets me work offline. Can move it around the screen and outside the browser. Can use ordinary editing shortcuts like Ctrl+B and Ctrl+K.
  • ExplorerPlus – file management tool. Lets me see what’s on my computer and move stuff around. Online equivalent: None? (ExplorerPlus now appears to be an orphan, sold by Novatix to SendPhotos Inc, but now no longer visible on their site.)
  • Text Monkey Pro – cleans up text. Online equivalent: Firefox plugin Copy Plain Text
  • ConnectedText – offline Wiki type organiser/outliner. Web app equivalent: TiddlyWiki. Jury still out on which is better
  • MyInfo – outliner. Online equivalent: Don’t know of any online outliner. There must be one.
  • PersonalBrain: thought organizer. Online equivalent: Don’t know of any.
  • Mindmanager: mindmapper. Online equivalents: bubbl.us, Mindmeister, Mindomo. Difference: Mindmanager much more powerful, works with more branches without losing effectiveness, integrates with other tools.
  • !Quick Screen Capture: screen capture tool. Online equivalent: Not known.
  • PaperPort: scanner and PDF database. Online equivalent: None.

Now it’s not as if I’m using these products because I think they’re all great. It’s just that no one has come along with anything better (Mac users: your cue to point me to great Mac equivalents). The past seven years, in fact have brought along nothing exciting in the offline apps world so it doesn’t surprise me that online applications, for all their simplicity, are getting the attention. (Don’t get me started on how weak and unimaginative PaperPort is. Mindmanager is still not as good as it could be; outliners are still doing very little more than their DOS forebears, and the lack of decent file managers is a crime.)

But all this just proves to me that there has been little real innovation in software in the sense of making programs do more. Web 2.0 has excited us because we lowered our expectations so much. Of course web apps will get better, and one day will deliver the functionality we currently get from desktop software. They may even do more than our desktop applications one day. But isn’t it a tad strange that we think this is all a huge leap forward?

The TiddlyWiki Report, Part II: Clint Checketts

This week’s WSJ.com/AWSJ column is about the TiddlyWiki (here, when it appears Friday), which I reckon is a wonderful tool and a quiet but major leap forward for interfaces, outliners and general coolness. I had a chance to chat with some of the folk most closely involved in TiddlyWikis, but sadly couldn’t use much of their material directly, so here is some of the stuff that didn’t fit.

Second offering: an interview with Clint Checketts, an Information Systems major at BYU-Idaho, who walked me through some of the history and some of the basics:

Jeremy: i’m intrigued by tiddlywikis and wanted to recommend them to readers, but i realise there’s stuff i don’t quite understand, and i just worry i’m recommending something that’s maybe too fiddly for the casual user…
Clint: I would vouch for TiddlyWikis.
Jeremy: are there any in particular your favourite? i love the tag ones, tagglywiki and tiddlytagwiki, cos i love the idea of using tags in that way…
Clint: Its been maturing quickly, though the growth has always been conservative and rarely causes any breaks between upgrades.
Jeremy: they seem to burst out in april or may, as far as i can gather… but i can’t find an easy how to guide for these.
Clint: Actually, to get you caught up on a short bit of TiddlyHistory they burst out with the introduction of GTD tiddlywiki. THe Getting Things Done version
Clint: Thats how I was introduced.
Jeremy: ah right. that was beautifully done one.
Clint: In June, Jeremy came out with an update that allows for macros.  These macros are great because now the different adaptations like TiddlyTagWiki and TagglyWiki can be re-merged back into the main one.  So now, there is primarily THE TiddlyWiki.
Clint: Now Jeremy also added in the ability to add in a stylesheet in a tiddler.  (You know what a tiddler is right?)
Jeremy: yes…
Jeremy: so when you say merged, it means the extra features of those offshoots can be available in the tiddlywiki?
Clint: Okay, so with the macros it was simple (mostly) to bring the adaptations back into the mainstream tiddlywiki and with the stylesheet tiddlers now you can bring in other skins that look completely different.
Clint: Yes
Clint: Simon Baird merged the tagglywiki stuff back in. [He] created this plug-in
Clint: My contributions have been in the form of the styles.
Jeremy: how easy is it to do the macros and stylesheet things?
Clint: Do you mean create macros or use macros?
Jeremy: use…
Clint: Piece of cake to use.  Let’s take AlanH’s smiley macro for example. You can just cut and paste the insertSmiley code. Some developers are working on ways to simplify importing macros as we speak. After copying the tiddler you just mark it as ‘systemConfig’ then reload the page
Jeremy: ah cool. so how would i load a stylesheet?
Clint: Go to TiddlySinister (my latest creation). Open up the StyleSheet tiddler and copy the content then create your own tiddler called StyleSheet and paste it.  The new style will be applied as soon as you hit ‘Done’.
Clint: The macros are the new key.  Its great because you can pick and choose the functions that you like and incorporate those.
Jeremy: this is fascinating… you got time to show me a few more macros?
Clint: Sure.
Clint: My one and only macro (so far) turns TiddlyWiki into a blogging type system. It places your newest posts on the front page, simplifying your posting.  Thats all. Not anything super great (yet).

Clint: Other great macro (just released yesterday) is the WebView macro by AlanH it allows you to edit you TiddlyWiki on you own computer and upload it.  It can detect when you are viewing it over a web connection and it hides the wiki-features.  This is great for creating atotally self contained web page.
Clint: Using style sheets people don’t even realize that they are viewing a TiddlyWiki.
Jeremy: that does sound neat. does your macro allow one to edit a blog?
Clint: In a way.  The starting view of a blog is usually a chronological view of posts.  My macro just looks at the dates of the last edits and posts them on the default view automatically.
Jeremy: neat…
Clint: Usually you would have to select the tiddlers you want to display manually in the DefaultTiddlers tiddler
Jeremy: yes…

Jeremy: where do you see this kind of thing going?
Jeremy: do you see it becoming more mainstream? or do you think tiddlywikis have limited appeal?
Clint: I doubt it would become as mainstream as the term ‘blog’.  It is only a tool. Just like you don’t usually here people bragging up their new hammer.
Jeremy: true!
Clint: However, on the scale of tools, I can see it getting a WordPress level of attention
Clint: It could even surpass that as Ajax has really brought the JavaScripting back into attention
Jeremy: is there a really simple way that people can publish a TW? i see obstacles there…
Clint: True.  Its is important to note that TiddlyWikis are local files.  It publish via ftp. I edit it and upload.  Not the slickest.
Clint: However.  Take alook at ZiddlyWiki. This is a version that uses Zope for the backend and alllows simple downloading of the entire ‘web-site’ as a tiddlywiki
Jeremy: ok, i’ll check that out…
Jeremy: thanks for all this Clint, you’ve helped a lot…

Another Task Manager

In this week’s WSJ.com/AWSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid) I write about online calendars, mentioning towards the end of it Backpack, an excellent online project and stuff organiser using Ajax. Here’s a slightly different version of the same thing, sproutliner:

Sproutliner is a free web service that helps you manage your projects and ideas (think of it as a supercharged structured to-do list). It uses some rather smashing client-side technology to make things as quick and easy as possible, without forcing you to worry about hitting ‘submit’ to save your precious data.