Take a walk on the client-side


I’ve been following Mozilla’s Prism launch with a lot of interest. One comment that caught my eye was from  Ryan Stewart, who believes "that the desktop isn’t dead, and that a hybrid approach is a successful way to go". There’s a lot of opportunities for really useful services that need a client-side component, and that’s key to my strategy. It’s the reason I’ve worked on Java Applets, Firefox and Internet Explorer extensions and now an Outlook plugin.

Web-based apps have a lot of advantages over traditional desktop apps:
No install needed! It’s an incredible advantage to be able to go to a URL and instantly start using the service. The installation process is a big barrier to people even trying your app, since they’ve been trained to know it takes minutes, involves answering questions they may not know the answer to, and worrying about their configuration.
Complete safety. There’s no worries about viruses or spyware, the only information it has access to is what you type in.
Use anywhere. You can use the app from any machine in the world, regardless of OS or configuration.
Up-to-date and comprehensive information. Since the information you’re accessing is pulled live from a server, it can be updated instantly, along with the application itself.
Easy to develop. You have a lot fewer variables to worry about with a server-based app. You know exactly what hardware and software the main code is running on. Keeping the output HTML cross-platform is a couple of orders-of-magnitude easier than doing the same for executable code.

There are some obstacles that I think will prevent pure web-based services from taking over the app world:
A limiting sandbox. To achieve security, web-pages can only pull data from their own servers, and can’t use any of the information already on the user’s machine, or any other web-services the user is signed onto, without an explicit agreement with the provider. This effectively stovepipes all information, and is the reason I’ve entered my list of friends on at least a dozen different services. I don’t see this changing, because it would require a majority of the browser vendors to implement a more subtle security policy than the current blanket same-domain-policy. Loosening security like that doesn’t seem likely.
Poor UI. Google has done an astonishing job with their mail interface, but for power users the experience still doesn’t match Outlook or Apple Mail. Running within a web-browser makes it tough to offer a rich interface, and you can’t use the standard OS metaphors. This is where Prism is interesting, because XUL actually offers some of the UI that HTML is missing, like sliders.

What I think is really interesting is the idea of combining the strengths of the two approaches. To start off, there needs to be a pure web interface to build up enough interest and trust for people to download a client extension that offers more features. That extension can then offer some tools to the app, like cross-domain access and native UI, but still keeping the bulk of the application running on the server. That keeps the big advantages of SAAS, such as ease of development, and online access to information, but allows a whole range of applications that aren’t possible now.

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