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?
Re: Mac. I’ve returned to Flock
It’s almost as fast as safari. It’s a little ‘heavier’ but it integrates plenty web2 stuff and there’s a blog post writing tool.
It is not 100% reliable. It might crash once per month. The blog posting tool can sometimes post mutliple times and the social bookmarking is a little but tricky to use – I still haven’t figured it out properly. However, all in all it has much promise. Integration with Flickr is very useful. A few more plug ins wouldn’t go amiss.
Your post is almost along the same lines as this one on NeoSmart Technologies:
People Hate Making Desktop Apps… Says Who!? which adds a logical backend to the examples you’ve given above.
It’s not just about the programs you have going, it’s also about the best and cleanest way of implementing them too.
Jeremy, Excellent story and real world comparisons. You are right, the Web 2.o crowd is willing to lower their expectations in order to declare victory for their lame on-line apps.
Paul Graham and I got into a huge blog debate about this over the weekend. Your post puts this in perspective. I wrote a new post today, and linked to yours. It is called “The Softwareless Software Company”, and explains the move from packaged software to software delivered as a service. Business customers will demand that the new services integrate seamlessly with their existing client based applications. This is where Microsoft is focusing.
For more insight see http://dondodge.typepad.com/the_next_big_thing/2007/04/the_softwareles.html
Jeremy, you make a great point, and one I’ve been yelling about for a couple of years. Remember when “online backup” was all the rage? Put simply, your browser is not your HD, nor should it be.
And with Quad-Core chips now under $1000, why in the heck should I dumb-down and slow down my computing speed to what my ISP will allow me (during different times of the day at that). I do archive work with enormous data sets, raning from 1-12G in size. There will never be an online app, much less that bandwidth to handle my work. You provided many good examples.
However, for an incredible and well-coded (portable, too) file manager, check out Donald Lessau’s XYplorer at http://www.XYplorer.com/ I think you’ll be pleasantly impressed.
Microsoft Word 2007 is on sale at Amazon for $199.99, regular price $229.95.
The Google Docs word processor is a little cheaper than that and it works just fine for me, but I’m not doing anything fancy. I certainly don’t need all that Word bloat.
Besides, we’ve only seen the thin edge of the wedge of web apps so far. And it’s moving fast. If you like innovation, sit back and enjoy the ride.
if you use webbased email how do you get your MSGTAG to work (if you’re stil using it)? Anyway i’m using Gmail alot, including gmail for your domain, and i dunno how i can get read mail notification service like the one in msgtag and outlook.
It’s true to say that web-based applications will always under-deliver for power users who are working alone or who have access to a corporate data infrastructure. But it’s also true to say that 80% of users actually employ only 20% of the capabilities of their software, and often pay for far more than they use. If you are going to compare Web-based applications with desktop ones, it skews the results if you only compare them on desktop features. Desktop apps for non-corporate users will score poorly on features such as being able to access your documents from anywhere, spending time installing updates and patches, or sharing things with people who do not want to install client software. So the starting point is to think about what is important for your working environment.
It doesn’t seem strange at all to me that we consider the delivery of smaller, more well-targeted applications to be a leap forward. In fact, it seems like we’re recovering lost ground. Bigger applications with ever more layers of feature-creep bloat have been getting more and more common, and have been ever more the mainstream, for many years, despite the fact that’s the Wrong Way To Go. In fact, I just wrote about this very subject within the last few hours at my own weblog — and the end result of ruminating on that should be to prompt you to view “does one thing well” web applications as an improvement over “does a million things poorly” behemoth applications.
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I used to go with the online apps but tired of the “fat cloud” model that is dependent on being connected and owns all my documents. HTML is a typical cross-platform technology that never optimize a client.
And then there is all these ads. Ads, ads, ads. They demand attention and they are ugly. Either that or you pay a small amount. Or you think it is a small amount but when you add them all up it is almost as expensive as the old PC model.
I now much prefer, and almost completely switched to, the “thin cloud” model where I get the best user experience from a small native app (that installs in seconds, or a couple of minutes) but have the (meta)data immediately shared via iCloud (or other service). I use mainly Apple Pages, Numbers, Keynote and I am adding Omni Groups software. Apple is even reworking their developer environment XCode to be just one simple download from the appstore (no installation, no millions of files all over the local machine).
This “thin cloud” model gives me the best user experience and most advantages from the on-line model. The cost is low, no monthlies. Updates is included in the low initial cost. And none of these f*king ads that are killing the web (it is worse than TV in that respect).