Web Application Ubiquity

There’s been a lot of talk of web applications overtaking and replacing traditional client-side applications and in some respects, it’s already happened. I spend approximately 80% of my computing time in Firefox and to me, a computer without an internet connection is a bit of a blunt tool these days. The main upside to moving online is that you can access your data/services anywhere regardless of what operating system you’re using and there is no need to worry about backups. Some paranoid types worry about privacy and security but at the end of the day, it’s in the best interests of the service provider to protect your content and respect your privacy if they want to retain the trust and custom of its users.

Web Operating System Stack

With all this in mind, you’ve got to wonder what the market is for a bloated operating system like Windows Vista where users will only ever use 20% of its functionality (mainly because the rest of it’s utterly incomprehensible/broken). I’d love to see someone develop a bare-bones operating system based on Linux (kernel, core GNU services & X11) which provides simply the browser as the user interface with common plugins & codecs, necessary networking facilities and nothing else. With a bit of polishing, you’d have a potentially powerful system which wouldn’t require high-end hardware to run. For those who need an even more integrated experience, there are plenty of plugins available for browsers such as Firefox which enrich the experience even further.

If you’re not already familiar with the world of online applications here are my top-10 favourite web apps:

  1. Meebo – Instant messaging with multiple protocol support
  2. Flickr – Photo sharing
  3. YouTube – Video sharing
  4. Google Docs – Online word-processor/spreadsheet/presentation suite
  5. Del.icio.us – Bookmark sharing
  6. Gmail – Email & contact management
  7. WordPress – Blogging
  8. Google Reader – RSS feed reader
  9. Wikipedia – User written/edited encyclopaedia
  10. Facebook – Uber social network/platform

To my mind this is all a precursor to something much bigger – clearly, the likes of Google have already seen this coming and are quietly ramping up in preparation as well as leading the way. I still like my idea of the E-brain Construct but it needs more refinement with some practical examples… we live in exciting times 🙂

N.B. I installed Mac OS X Leopard (10.5) last weekend – now there’s an OS to write home about!

David avatar

10 responses

  1. I really couldn't disagree with your second paragraph more. Advertising is simply the means by which the likes of Google can provide services for free, can we really begrudge them making money off it also? It's a business for goodness sake!! I do not believe any of them have ulterior motives and what you say just sounds like the ramblings of an over-zealous privacy advocate.

    You describe the tools as “cute” I'm guessing because they're not generally as feature rich as their client-side cousins but that's to be expected as they're still pretty new and the technology is still evolving (see Google Gears as a prime example of new innovations). In any case I'd father have a slimmed down IM client any day than one with all the rubbish MSN/Yahoo put in theirs which are pure bloat (and still laden with advertising).

    “What happens when the data falls into the wrong hands?” Why would it? If you use a good password and only use trusted service providers what are you afraid of? Don't tell me Google give the NSA secret back doors to their services of any other nonsense. At the same time I don't see how it's any more insecure than keeping it all on your home computer which also has a persistent internet connection and, if it runs Windoze especially, is even more prone to viruses/hackers/spyware…

    Regarding you comments about Leopard, I also read the Ars review, although some graphic-designer types question some of the UI changes the review still concludes positively:

    “Leopard is absolutely packed with improvements. It seems that not a corner of the OS has gone untouched.

    Perhaps that's not as clear to the casual user who just sees the surface changes and the major new features in Leopard. But even in that case, there's more than enough to recommend it. if you're wondering whether you should upgrade to Leopard, the answer, as it's been for every major revision of Mac OS X, is yes.

    In many ways, Leopard feels like a new beginning. While Tiger consolidated the gains made in 10.0 through 10.3, pinning down APIs and dipping its toe into a few possible future directions for the GUI, Leopard charges bravely forward, choosing one particular new look and mandating it everywhere, redesigning all of the most prominent visual elements of the interface, and shedding old technologies like cat fur.”

    I've used just about every OS out there and nothing beats OS X hands down. Yes, the hardware is expensive but as with everything in life you pay for what you get.

  2. From the Bill of Rights:
    Amendment IV

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    The majority of your top ten seem to violate this right to security against unreasonable searches and seizures, and for what? Yep it's all in the name of advertising. The people making these cute and “useful” tools aren't in it to make the world a better place, they're in it to mine as much saleable data as possible and to make their targetted advertising products as attractive as possible. Their plans beyond this don't bear thinking about, what happens when this data falls into the wrong hands?

    As for slimline Linux operating systems try Puppy Linux. It's so small it fits on a thumbdrive and runs completely in RAM – think fast! It's great for taking it around with you, but I still need a proper OS at home. A lot of people need the processing power on tap for things such as studio recording, video editing, 3D graphics and gaming. All of which your google docs will do sod all for.

    I was interested to read in Ars Technica that although Leopard is great on the inside they've made a lot of questionable design changes to the interface. Here's how they sum up the UI:
    “I was ready for an all-new look in Leopard; I was ready for Aqua's successor. That Leopard doesn't provide that is a disappointment, but hardly a sin. But a lower degree of difficulty should entail less risk. Viewed in that light, Leopard's graphical missteps are damning. If Apple is going to make mistakes, let them be made in service of a truly daring design. I'm willing to forgive, and even to look back fondly on the original Aqua UI for this reason. But to attempt a relatively tame evolution and then to willfully screw things up—things that were not broken before—that I do not forgive.”

    In my opinion OS X is overrated, especially when you consider the very high total cost of ownership, it's refreshing to see that some writers are starting to shake off the rose-tinted view of Apple that has been so prevalent for the last few years.

  3. I agree with your comment about Facebook applications – some are a definite menace, a face which Facebook have recognised and are actively putting in place new privacy mechanisms to prevent abuse. I don't use third party Facebook apps (except for Digg).

    Funnily enough I also agree with your conclusion but I would phrase it by saying that if you are concerned about the minute chance of your data falling into the wrong hands or being “misused” then don't use these tools. Probably a good idea so blacken your windows and change your name also!

    Everything else we'll have to agree to disagree on especially regarding the use of targeted advertising. Also your example of the priest somewhat negates itself as without the technology he may never have been caught. If you've got nothing to hide…

  4. You say “Advertising is simply the means by which the likes of Google can provide services for free” – I whole-heartedly disagree. The services they provide to us are merely the carrot by which the likes of us can provide Advertising opportunities to them! The services are the lure, and we are the fish. The most obvious and annoying example of this are the so-called applications you find on Facebook. The Vampire type applications which are designed to spread throughout the population as fast as possible by challenging people to “bite” as many of their friends as possible. Each new bite gives the owners of access to the personal details and effects of one more sorry soul, sleepwalking their way into a Big Brother state.

    The fact that these sites are advert supported is completely intrusive. If an email service has adverts down the side of the page you can guarantee that the service has scanned your personal communications for key words in order to target their adverts. That means everything you send and receive, details about when and where you're going on holiday, share deals you are making, job offers you are taking, shed loads of personally identifiable data is all fair game for these collosally powerful companies.

    You say ““What happens when the data falls into the wrong hands?” Why would it?”. I say why wouldn't it? When in the history of the universe have human beings shown themselves to be trustworthy? Give me some examples. History has shown time and time again that people are out for number 1, people (although not all of them) crave power and money – it is part of life, and I can't see how you can completely dismiss the aspect of data falling into the wrong hands, or even the right hands turning into the wrong hands. Only very recently AOL accidentally released the search histories of 500,000 members, showing amongst other things a priest who spent his time online between the local Diocese web pages, and child porn.

    Regarding online versus offline storage of data – yes you could argue that Windows and local storage may be more prone to invasion than say Linux, but at least it is relatively easy to take precautionary measures. I for one use Linux – Windows annoys me in many ways. At least though with local storage you are not DEFINATELY giving your data away. At least there is SOME CHANCE that your data is private. You can run live CD operating systems and save to removable media, you can choose when to be offline or online. The trouble with all these online applications is that the majority of web users have no idea what kinds of things are hapening to them when they use them. Going back to the priest example – would he be looking at child porn if he knew his service provider logged all his searches indefinately, used them to build up a picture of him, and could link them to him through credit card / address details? Do the average webmail users know that all their data is contributing to some advertising companies pot of saleable data? Does anyone bother to read the terms and conditions, or indeed can they understand them without a crack lawyer and a spare few weeks.

    The plain and simple truth is that if you want to maintain your right to privacy don't use these tools. Make sure that you get your browser to treat search engine's cookies as session cookies or not accept them, and be very careful about what you sign up for. You have a choice!

  5. I was thinking about web apps earlier, and I'm not so convinced by them.

    They can't provide the same level of functionality as locally running applications (because of security and the ultimate restrictions on what the browser is capable of), and most don't offer a consistent UI. Since your net connection is more likely to fail than the hardware in your computer, access to web applications is also less reliable than access to local applications.

    Overall I just dont get the feeling that they are going to be a huge success in the long term, but I guess that's what must have been said about local apps on PCs back when mainframes were king.

    There could well be a balance between the two though – local applications which have the transparent ability to communicate with web-based services if needs be. I think that this is ultimately where the 'web application revolution' will end up.

  6. I think some of the problems you mention are going to be addressed by innovations in the browser space and better persistent connections – things like microformats, offline storage and UI toolkits are closing the gaps between web apps and their traditional counterparts.

    As you mentioned there is also the prospect of new runtime environments like Adobe's AIR which could potentially provide the best of both worlds but I'm dubious as to weather they will catch on (they look like glorified dashboard widgets to me!).

    Of course traditional apps are never going to disappear completely and as previously mentioned pro applications and games are still going to need a much more powerful base than a web browser alone. Still, as you might have guessed I'm a bit biased towards the idea migrating online 😉

  7. Take a look at this page http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/news/2007/11/ph
    It's about HyperSpace – a small operating system that lives in the BIOS and allows instant-on use of things like email, browsing etc. This is a great example of David's idea of a bloat-free, barebones operating system, with the added advantage of not having to wait for the operating system to boot.
    If i was designing it I would give it a browser, an email client, a note taking app, a media player and a password management app.

  8. http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/11/04/gos-where-computers-are-headed/) which is another interesting bare-bones operating system. I like the quote in the review –

    “If we get to the point where we can do the majority of our activites via an online interface, the need for all-powerful operating systems and computers diminishes.”

    In the future Windows will just feel like a nasty headache period in technological history 😉

  9. Old news :p


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