Saturday, June 10, 2006

Web vs Desktop

A colleague of mine brought to my attention a newsletter article from a small computer reseller that reports that the Web is posing at least a small threat to Microsoft. The article notes that, with the beta release of Google's spreadsheet and with the earlier announcement that Google had acquired Writely, an online word processor, Microsoft's key desktop apps have some competition from the Web.

This isn't news, although the the idea that the desktop is becoming less important is getting truer each year. Paul Graham (famous for his essay on using Bayesian statistical analysis to catch spam) has an excellent chapter on the subject ("The Other Road Ahead") in his 2004 book Hackers and Painters (which is a quick and stimulating read). You can read that chapter online, here. Note that this web version of the article is dated 2001.

Now Graham was ahead of the curve. In 2000 - when I was actively building Web apps with Lasso - printing from your browser was still a problem, and that was just one of the many things that forced you to keep Web apps relatively simple.

But things change. I've been playing with Google's spreadsheet for a week and I started playing with Writely last year. At the moment, neither is in the league next to the league of desktop apps like Word or OOo's word processor. But Google's spreadsheet does work and it's perfect for simple, short tasks. Same can be said of Writely. For some users, anyway, Google's spreadsheet and Writely would make Microsoft Office (or any office suite) unnecessary. Indeed, it's not just desktop office apps that are endangered. As things stand now, I can open my browser and do a lot without having to open any desktop apps at all:

- browse the Web*

- get/send email*

- view/edit my calendar*

- make notes (in Yahoo!) or write a formatted document (Writely)*

- do FTP (using IE or the FireFTP extension for Firefox)*

- pay bills, check my bank account, transfer money*

- blog (of course)*

- read the news*

- have a text or video chat with someone else*

- work in a simple spreadsheet

- manage my online photo collection (after first uploading them); in some services I can even EDIT my photos

- make a phone call (can't remember the name of this Web-based service but I tried it a while ago)

- build a web site

I could go on. The activities at the start of the list that I've marked with an asterisk (*) are those that, in my opinion, either require the Web (browsing) or can be done in a browser just about as well as they can be done in a desktop app.

Note the range of activities here. Some are fairly passive, more traditional Web apps that simply deliver info to your browser (reading the news), but many are very interactive, and a few of them qualify as apps for developers. And these are things you can do on a brand new computer before you install any desktop apps at all.

I've heard people guessing that Google may be writing a good GUI for Linux. Maybe, but I rather suspect that the smart guys at Google long ago asked themselves, Are desktop operating systems relevant any more? And they answered the question NO.

And they were right. I've switched to Windows, after twenty years as a devout Mac user. Has it changed my life? Very little. Apple would like you to believe that there are huge differences between the platforms. Nonsense. There are some differences, but most of the differences are superficial and trivial and matter mainly to geeks who love superficial and trivial details. Most of what I do 12 hours a day can be done on a Mac or a PC equally well, and in fact, if my PC dies, I could plug my backup drive into my Mac and keep working with almost no down time. Of course, I could not have done that in the '80s, when platform incompatibility was a real and serious problem. But everything has changed. First, the makers of desktop apps - mainly Microsoft - made certain file formats standard so that exchanging files became pretty easy. But the Web has had an even more profound impact. It's not only made it irrelevant what operating system you were using, it's to a considerable extent made it irrelevant what HARDWARE you were using. See my list of Web activities above? I do that stuff on a dual-core PC with 2 GB of RAM that, while a bargain, was still not cheap. But everything there could be done today on an old, cheap computer running Linux - so long as it could run Firefox 1.5. The ease with which Mac users can share documents with Windows users is an advantage touted only by Apple, but it cuts both ways. I don't need a Mac to share things with the handful of Mac users in my life.

Now, who does this development hurt? Platform irrelevance does pose some threat to platform makers, but I think it is likely to hurt Apple more than Microsoft, because if the platform really does become irrelevant, well, why would you bother switching to an OS used by only two or three percent of the world?

It's well known that Microsoft failed to grasp the significance of the Web at first. But it's catching up. I think there must be some paradigm shifting problems at Microsoft, that is, they're so used to the desktop idea that it's hard for them to think of computing without the desktop. But somebody in Redmond is trying. See Windows Live. And Microsoft itself is building an online version of Office, and I predict that its online spreadsheet will not be a toy, like Google's.

(Published originally on Typepad 6/10/2006)

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.