Web applications are the new black

I almost gave myself a sore neck from nodding my head in agreement as I read John Gruber’s latest article entitled “The Location Field Is the New Command Line”. He talks about the differences (or lack thereof) between desktop and web-based applications:

“It’s not so much that switching to web apps is cheap, as that it’s easy. In fact, in many ways, switching your employees to web apps is even easier than upgrading the Win32 apps they’re already using. I.e. it’s easier for corporations to migrate to web apps than it is for them to stay Windows-only.”

This is exactly what happened on a project I was working on with Message. The client was a large property consultant. They had been using an outdated Windows application to manage their huge list of addresses. If an employee wanted to use the software, they had to be running the right operating system. They also had to jump through ridiculous hoops just to synchronise the company data.

The web-based (or, in this case, intranet-based) solution we came up with requires nothing more than a web browser. John Gruber takes the words right out of my mouth:

“Custom web apps are easier to develop than custom desktop apps. That’s not to say it’s easy to make a web app that looks and feels like a desktop app - that’s not really even possible. But it’s easy to write a web app that looks and feels like a web page, which is apparently good enough for most purposes, especially data-entry and data-retrieval apps that tie into server-hosted SQL databases.

And if you think the 90-percent market share of computers that can run Win32 software is huge - how many computers do you think run a typical web app?”

Another company I’ve been working with a lot lately is Semantico. A lot of their clients are large publishing houses. When it came to creating an electronic version of the Oxford Reference series, a web-based solution was the only logical choice.

A few years ago, the choice might not have been so simple. These days, it’s hard to find a computer that isn’t connected to the internet but that hasn’t always been the case. Before we had almost ubiquitous net connections, CD-ROMs were the order of the day. If you were unwise enough to actually buy an encyclopedia on CD-ROM you’d find it obsolete within a year. There’s no easy way to update CD-ROMs.

It certainly does seem that the age of the web application has dawned. Just take a look at the hottest apps of the moment: Movable Type, Basecamp, GMail. All of them have a common philosophy:

“If you have access to the internet, you can use this application no matter what operating system you are using.”

But there’s a dark cloud on the horizon. It seems to me that the core philosophy of Microsoft’s XAML technology is:

“If you have access to the internet, you can use this application… as long as you’re using our operating system.”

Maybe I’m misjudging XAML. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood what it’s all about but it seems to me like a return to the darkest days of the browser wars. It seems to me that Microsoft have a drawn a line in the sand with XAML on one side and standards like XHTML, XUL, SVG, JavaScript and CSS on the other.

Today, existing web standards offer a relatively primitive interface for applications that work in almost any environment. Tomorrow, XAML will offer a sophisticated interface for applications that work in a limited environment.

It will no longer be a case of web apps vs. desktop apps. Instead we’ll have browser-accessible web apps vs. Longhorn-only web apps.

I wonder which horse John Gruber would put his money on? He’s a smart man.

On the strength of “The Location Field Is the New Command Line” alone, I forked over the money to become a paid-up member of Daring Fireball. Not only will I continue to receive his words of wisdom, I’m also going to get a cool t-shirt.

Have you published a response to this? :

Previously on this day

17 years ago I wrote iBook

Disaster strikes!