There is a lot to be said about web applications. Whether you are at work, at home or in an Internet café — you can access all of your stuff without worrying whether the computer has the right software and the latest version of your files. For those of you with webmail accounts, this is nothing new. But part of the hype about what analysts are calling Web 2.0 is that all of your core enterprise and personal applications will be available to you 24/7 via your web browser. Online photos, files, contact lists, project communications, music — you name it, and you can bet that somebody is raising the money, hiring the AJAX developers, and thinking up a cool new name for it.
But what happens when you are not online? According to blogging wunderkind Jason Kottke the next big thing will be desktop web servers which will make using web applications seamless whether you are connected or not. The benefits are obvious. You can dash off a few emails while sitting on the plane or organise your Flickr photo colletions while chilling in a café. Later when you reconnect, your web applications will synchronise. From a development perspective, programmers need only code one application, which can then run on web servers customised for individual operating system environments. Not unlike the way Java works.
The problem with Kottke’s ‘the web is the platform’ argument is that cached web applications don’t replace a native operating system, they just reduce the relative importance of one system over another. You might prefer the aesthetics of Apple OS X to Windows XP, but at the end of the day, if most of your work is done on browser-based applications, you probably don’t really care which platform you use. The real question is whether the new portal players care.
Although both Yahoo and Google are making moves into the application space, you have to question the logic of them trying to recreate an entire operating environment. There are only three things that should matter to a modern day search and media network — getting more registered users, widening the addressable scope of your search queries, and making more money. Sticky web applications certainly have the potential of delivering on all three of those goals.
Yet, as browser-based applications reduce the strategic value of creating your own operating system, there is increasingly less upside for portals to go after the whole enchilada. For what it’s worth, industry commentator Robert Cringely thinks Bill Gates has more to worry about from Steve Jobs, than either Larry or Sergey. His Redmond Doomsday scenario has Apple using the iPod as a bootable hard drive to distribute a free version of OS X capable of running on PCs and replacing Windows in one fell swoop.
Conceptually, web application sweet spots fall into three categories — collaboration, storage and organisation tools. Applications that are about people working together make much more sense as a network hosted tool. Whether it be project management (Basecamp), communications (Gmail) or even sales force automation (Salesforce.com) — the downsides of a browser-based interface are easily outweighed by the benefits of better connectivity.
Storage management is another obvious candidate. Users want to be able to backup, access and share relevant work documents and personal multimedia. There are a few offerings in this space (Mac.com and Box.net), but it is surprising just how inefficient this process still is. Finally there needs to be a whole set of data organisation tools that will allow people to search, prioritise and associate their network data objects. Some of this can be achieved by good desktop search tools, but the future applications that come from colliding better group calendaring (iCal) with personal organisation (Backpack) tools may create new market niches that have no analogue in today’s software products.
The logic is not hard to follow. I want a fast PC. But I also want a smart network which follows me wherever I go. And although I love my Google search, my Yahoo photos, my Apple iPod and my Windows productivity tools — you can bet that I and everyone else will happily jump ship with whoever makes our lives easier first.
Mike Walsh is a commercial strategist in the media and entertainment sector. You can read his daily weblog at www.fourth-estate.com