Wednesday, November 08, 2006

I Resemble That Remark

Anne Zelenka posted a good commentary on her site yesterday regarding her preference for everything to be in the browser. I've been reading Anne's blog for a while now and I respect her opinions, so much so that I asked her to review our soon-to-be-released hybrid application. I hope she reviews it even more now because I think it might just change her mind.

But on to Anne's arguments. Among her points are:

  • Most exciting innovations are taking place in the browser

  • Browsers are the only way to develop cross-platform

  • Browsers go beyond data and integrates information

  • Browser experience can be made consistent

  • The Browser is about me

Which leads her to predict:

"The browser will be extended to give us offline connectivity and access to desktop resources. The browser and its context provides what we need for mobile access. The browser is where it’s at, not the desktop."

Let's ignore the fact that a web browser is a desktop application for the time being because we should always strive to avoid tautologies. Instead, I believe we can reduce Anne's arguments to:

  • Accessibilty

  • Personalization

But let's examine Anne's points first.

1. Most exciting innovations are taking place in the browser

I'm not sure if Anne means the browser itself, or the web sites a browser points to. If its the browser itself, then true, there is a battle raging between Mozilla and Internet Explorer, but I disagree that better tabbing and RSS integration represent the pinnacle of innovation.

If its the web sites a browser points to, then I think its a push. This is the classic desktop versus webtop argument which usually reduces to what you prefer for what task. For instance, some people may be fine with Writely, some people may require FrameMaker. I gave GMail a try, I prefer Thunderbird right now. I'll probably test Outlook 2007 when it comes out, or maybe GMail will add some offline support, which is critical for me.

What I will agree with is its easier for people to try out innovation if they can get to it with a browser-- which is why I categorize this argument under Accessibility.

2. The only way to develop cross-platform.

Cross platform development has been one of those holy grails that seem more like the Easter Bunny than an actual chalice. How many cross-platform 'solutions' have come and gone? Anne acknowledges its not Java (totally agree), but there's a whole litany of attempts (anybody remember Galaxy? We almost bankrupted a previous company with that one).

I will agree there are not many choices, but that's because most companies don't want there to be many choices. As long as you have that tension, I doubt HTML will turn into a silver bullet. Because of that tension, codes extensions certainly will not. A Firefox extension will not work with IE or Safari. Same for IE or Safari add-ons. In a sense, web browsers already mirror operation systems in their lines of code demarkation.

Two additional thoughts:

2a. I do think Adobe has a shot at cross platform development with Apollo, though perhaps not so much for the 'classic' browser on the desktop, but for the mini-browser on the mobile device.

2b. I think the other possibility may be .NET. I mention this in an earlier post, but I believe Mono was the major reason Microsoft worked out a partnership with Novell.

3. Browsers go beyond data and integrate information

What about a CRM applications? That seems to integrate a lot of information. Or placing Access data tables within you MS Office documents. Or what about the latest Visual Studio development environment that maintains a rich set of constantly updating reference material online?

Two nice things about desktop applications that are designed to integrate information: a) They understand the information type so you don't have to and b) someone has designed the information layout and flow so you don't have to.

I think the issue here is really about personalization. If you don't agree with how an app lays out information, it can be arduous or impossible to change. Web browsers make it very easy to create your own, personalized mess dashboard.

4. Browser experience can be made consistent

This I just disagree with. Are all blogs consistent? Are all web apps consistent? Hardly. Maybe Anne means consistency in terms of deploying an application to users. In this case, sure, but then its more an accessibility issue (how easy is it to deploy a desktop app versus a desktop app) than an intrisic consistency issue.

5. The Browser is about me

This is Anne's most powerful point. It speaks to what's wrong with desktop software-- or even software in general. And the reason the 'browser is about me' and not the desktop app is because the web application is forced to be simple. Both the newnewss of web solutions and the constraints of the HTML world dictate simple implementations. Desktop applications, on the other hand, have rocketed past human comprehension and make people feel lost in space.

I look at a lot of the online solutions out there and I'm convinced that, while accessibility is appealing, simplicity is the real selling point. Simplicity in what you can do, in how you can personalize and, most importantly, in why one office worker can explain it to another.

I agree wholeheartedly with Anne on this point, but believe its more accidental then designed. And, if the world truly did adopt web applications exclusively, then web apps would complicate themselves so inexplicably that they would no longer be about anyone.

Another Prediction

What do I think the future is? I do think browsers will develop offline capabiity, but the real solution is software that allows for the right tool for the audience. As I said earlier, writers may need FrameMaker to write their books, but an editor would only need a PDF reader to edit it. Architects may need Autocad, but contractors may only need Visio and framers may only need a printout of their wall.

I only see one thing standing in the way-- installation that doesn't involve the user. If the browser can do it, I see no reason why the OS can't; and I'd argue .NET takes us some of the way there. Once that is solved, then installing the right application-- be it desktop, browser extension or web-- will be no different than sending a drawing to a printer. People in different roles need different views of data in different presentations. It will be the ability of *any* software to use desktop, extension or webtop effectively to address the proper presentation for distinct audiences that will determine success in the future.

So what do you think, Anne; would you still like to try my desk/web hybrid app?

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