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?