An ongoing conversation about web applications is highlighting key points about the future of computing, the web, and the industry.
While Joel Spolsky’s seminal article on Microsoft losing the API war appears to have been the first drop in this torrent, it echoes conversations that go back least as far as the W3C’s Workshop on Web Applications. (which is the same workshop that people like Opera employee Ian Hickson came away from, disillusioned, just prior to the announcement of the WHAT WG [which was covered on this site earlier this month]).
A Technorati search reveals the interest in web applications in general (and Joel’s article in particular), but what has been particularly interesting to me is how the conversation has morphed as it continues.
The beginning, or at least where I came in, saw discussion of which technologies future web applications would be built on. HTML and CSS are great for documents, but not so good for applications. Microsoft has XAML on the horizon, the W3C offers XForms and SVG, and the WHAT WG aims to offer an extension of basic HTML that’s backwards compatible with IE6. Two of these technologies require radical change in end-user technology; one does not.
Whether Joel’s article was written in response to, or prior to these discussions is largely irrelevant — whatever the case, the publication shifted the entire tone of the conversation. Instead of discussing the technologies themselves, it moved web applications into the spotlight as being an important way forward and a threat to traditional software business models.
John Gruber picked up at this point and wrote yet another tone-setting piece, The Location Field Is the New Command Line. Arguing that web applications provide different, less comprehensive, but easier methods of interaction, Gruber rightly points out that Google’s mega-popular GMail is light years ahead of the competition in the webmail space but almost non-competition when compared against desktop mail clients. Gruber concludes that “… web apps don’t need to beat desktop apps on the same terms. What’s happened is that they’re beating them on an entirely different set of terms.”
Steven Garrity goes on to compare Gruber’s reasoning with yet another article buzzing around the web, Cory Doctorow’s presentation on Digital Rights Management given to Microsoft last week. Ian Bicking throws two cents in the ring with his list of features web applications offer that traditional desktop apps do not.
Of course, nobody seems to be talking about Macromedia’s Flex and the continuing application development capabilities within Flash itself. Hindered by stigma that Flash is evil and purely about animation amongst developers that should be buying into Flex, it’s hard to see this combination taking off; however, as a dark horse, it’s a hard one to ignore on sheer numbers alone. Ninety-odd percent of web users have Flash installed, and Flash renders consistently cross-platform. Remember what Joel reminds us though: it’s all about developers.
An incredibly thought-provoking article in April speculated Google is building a massive, global platform for distributed computing. Microsoft has renewed an interest in developing Internet Explorer. And don’t forget that mobile and wireless devices are reaching incredible saturation levels — the global mobile phone subscription base is expected to hit 2 billion in 3 years. All these things are related.
It’s a lot to digest and that’s only scratching the surface. The obvious trend is the key to understanding the future of computing: the web is it. Servers are becoming more important than clients. While raw processor power will remain useful for applications that need it, simple and general purpose data management — including email, scheduling and time management, office applications, and all other text and information manipulation tools — will increasingly move to a globally shared environment that makes it easier to collaborate and easier to access. The recession is over, the slump is ended. Web development is in demand, and the demand is only going to increase.