A reader emailed me this old article from CNN Money discussing the concept of the webtop, i.e. that
A killer app no longer requires hundreds of drones slaving away on
millions of lines of code. Three or four engineers and a steady supply
of Red Bull is all it takes to rapidly turn a midnight brainstorm into
a website so hot it melts the servers.
What has changed is the way today’s Web-based apps can run almost as
seamlessly as programs used on the desktop, with embedded audio, video,
and drag-and-drop ease of use. Behind this Web-desktop fusion are
Flash, and Ruby on Rails. We’ll spare you the technical details;
suffice it to say that these technologies are giving rise to a new
webtop that may one day replace your suite of desktop applications.
I already hate the term "webtop," though I’ve used it myself in the past. The article goes on to discuss the various webapps that are starting to move into areas once reserved for desktop applications, then lists of a few noteworthy apps, such as 37signals campfire chat client.
The conclusion? We’ll all be doing our word processing over the web from now on.
Now I like a little bit of breathless hype as much as the next guy, but this is over the top. Yes, webapps are going to change, but there are certain limitations to the medium that will make the webtop a much tamer place:
- Reliability and performance – why aren’t most desktop apps in corporate environments served up as client/server apps? The technology is there; the kinks of client/server have mostly been worked out. License sharing could save tons of money. The benefits of reliable, centralized storage and ease of collaboration seem pretty obvious. Yet the most we see is networked storage of documents. The reason? Even on a corporate network, performance and reliability are not high enough to make client/server computing for desktop apps attractive.
- It’s more than just CRUD on speed – even after the widespread introduction of the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointing device) environments in the 80′s, it took a while for programs to mature beyond GUI versions of Lotus 1-2-3. We didn’t see precursors to Photoshop until a few years after the introduction of the Mac. Most webapps today are still glorified CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) engines. Writing the more substantial applications will take a good bit of work, not just a few cans of Red Bull (or Jolt!, sniff).
- Writely ain’t Word – more like Wordpad. If Writely was out as a desktop app, it wouldn’t get a second look. Yes, there is a need for a Word-compatible, easier, less bloated, free word processor, but they never seem to make it. Yes, a web based word processor that saves your work more frequently than an occasional submit is kinda cool. But the truly cool part is the collaboration feature of Writely, and honestly, there are other, better solutions for that.
This hype around Ajax is really starting to remind me of the first dotcom boom (See FauxJAX for a good sendup of this). I had a few venture capitalists back then asking me to look at business plans that added "the web" to their business models. My rule for evaluating these was always the same: what does the web add? Most times it didn’t change anything; it was just another marketing channel. For others, like online classifieds, it removed distribution costs. For the social networking type businesses, it made it easier and less costly to jumpstart the network effect.
So, for those going gaga over Ajax, ask yourself, what does Ajax add? If you can’t come up with a good answer, odds are it doesn’t add a thing.