Web 3.0: the Return of Desktop Apps?

For a few years now, technology companies and developers have migrated to the Web en masse. The Web browser has become the preeminent development platform and given rise to the most interesting and abundant product and user-interface innovations in recent years--the whole movement even has a marketing name, "Web 2.0". Even desktop stalwarts like word processing and spreadsheets have sprouted Web-based equivalents like Google's Docs and Spreadsheets. Lots of folks are screaming that the desktop is dead and that the Web is the One True Way to write and deliver software.

Being an old desktop app developer myself, and having transitioned to writing Web apps, I'd argue for a middle-ground and predict that the "Web 3.0" wars will actually be waged on the desktop, with internet-enabled desktop applications harnessing the best of the Web's dynamic data updates and the best of the desktop's significant horsepower, while bypassing each platform's inherent problems (note that by "desktop application" I mean "non-browser apps running on a computing device," so iPhone apps and other smart phones are included).

Those problems are well known. Desktop programs are difficult to maintain and update on your users' computers (especially on multiple operating systems), necessitating complex physical delivery (CD-ROMs or large downloads) and update processes; but they're richer, faster, more responsive, and not limited by the subset of UI controls available to Web browsers.

Web apps solve this problem by ensuring that everyone always uses the latest and greatest version of your program, there's no data loss due to computer malfunction because your users' data lives on your servers; and they're multi-platform out of the box; but they're slower, hard to maintain because of browser incompatibilities, and limited in crucial ways for security reasons (e.g. by and large you can't manipulate files that live on the desktop from the browser, etc).

Web development also requires significant drudge work, because Rich Internet Applications require building complex supporting frameworks that simply don't exist for the browser (although that's changed a lot with YUI and other toolkits); desktop operating systems typically have all of that stuff built in, ready to be used without much effort. Even the most basic functions in Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Movie Maker take a tremendous amount of work to be replicated in a browser, and while programmers might ooh and aah over the programming kung-fu creating a Web-based, drag-and-drop, rich-text editor requires, it's still a stupid text editor, and the Win32 API lets you have a faster, better one with a dozen lines of Delphi code or less. Google's customized home page had people all excited because it lets you drag and drop components--never mind that drag-and-drop is over 2 decades old and unremarkable if not completely insignificant outside of the browser.

It's easy to notice the huge number of really interesting applications developed for the Web and overlook the equally impressive apps that have come out of the desktop arena in recent years. I've counted 13 desktop search program from Google, Yahoo!, MSN, X1, Copernic, Blinkx, Ask and others; iTunes is a snazzy ubiquitous internet-enabled desktop app; there are over a dozen P2P file-sharing programs; stardock, Apple and hundreds of independent developers have built tons of desktop widgets such as stock tickers and email notifiers; media players abound (you can easily find over 20 of them for Windows); Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop are still selling like hotcakes; and possibly the most-talked about non-Website program in recent years has been Google Earth. A lot of these programs could run in your browser, but the developers made them desktop apps, often for the reasons I outlined above.

The natural evolution, then, is not in turning your browser into a mini OS with a graphical shell (though that's challenging and fun). We're already hitting serious roadblocks in that arena. I'd bet real money the next step in the cycle is to turn your stodgy desktop apps into connected powerhouses using Web services and other APIs for up-to-the-minute data (and user data storage, why not?), and harness desktop OSes' superior UI libraries and horsepower to display that data in creative, responsive, fast and exciting new ways the browser can't replicate with acceptable browser (or programmer) performance; just try building 3D graphs, file trees or animation in a browser without using Flash or Silverlight plugins. You could have a desktop Photoshop-style program with desktop-powered editing functions but seamless Web storage, integrated with Flickr tagging and Google image search; really, really fast and powerful aggregation, search and processing of news and other content grabbed from the Web, but sliced and diced in real time with the massive computing power your desktop offers. The sky is the limit. Who's with me?

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