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Grand Desktop Ambitions: The Q&A

Although I can never quite remember from whom I pilfered the question – my best guess would be Jonathan – it’s one of my favorites. If you’ve seen me present more than once, you’ve likely heard it more than once – my condolences. Fortunately enough for you, the question is also an easy one: What is the most popular application in the world? The answer, by my – and, presumably, the originator of said question – most unscientific reckoning? Google. Or Google search, if you’re one of those types.

Whether you agree or disagree with that particular assertion is in some respects besides the point, because the implications are not, interestingly, all that dependent on the answer actually being, you know, correct. Even were it #2 or #3 or #5, it would remain simultaneously a powerful indictment of more formalized taxonomic discovery technologies (the basis for the application’s popularity) and a fundamental validation of the value of multi-platform, multi-architecture technologies (the basis for the application’s reach).

The latter points holds the greater interest for me. Not really because the popularity of and desperate need for search – at least in retrospect – is nothing if not predictable. But because the very underpinnings of Google’s success have had little visible impact on some project and vendor ambitions, and a major impact on others’.

Originally I’d planned to tackle what are admittedly orthogonal subjects in separate entries, but time is always against me. And they truly are related, at least peripherally. To see why, let’s turn to my old friend, the Q&A.

Q: I’m not sure I followed the thesis above: can you explain it in more detail?
A: It makes more sense when the individual datapoints are revealed, but the essence argument is this: Google’s search doesn’t care – at all – what your desktop is. The main reason I’ve declined to dismiss Google as a serious threat to Microsoft – among others – has been their tactical approach. Rather than trying to out-Microsoft Microsoft on the desktop, as a small horde of firms have attempted to do over the years, they leverage a new platform to make Microsoft less important.

Q: Less important how?
A: Google, along with more or less anyone designing applications that will run in multi-platform browsers, is diminishing the desktop’s role in the consumer and enterprise spaces. I don’t even consider this point debatable; look no further than the reactions Microsoft folks have had to Apple’s recent PC vs Mac campaign (this is far and away my favorite), or the fact that Dell will be shipping Linux desktops. You’re probably thinking, “but this means nothing from a marketshare perspective,” and while we could argue the semantics of your usage of ‘nothing,’ I’d generally agree. But it means everything from a control perspective. Dell shipping Linux for desktops would have been unthinkable a few years ago; these days, it’s merely unusual. I attribute much of that shift to Software-as-a-Service: much of what users used to transact via rich clients such as Office or Outlook Express is now done on the web.

Q: Ok, I understand the threat that SaaS generally and Google specifically play to traditional desktop vendors, Microsoft most notably, but how does that tie back to current vendors and projects? How have they failed to learn from Google’s success?
A: Failed is probably not the appropriate term here, but I am surprised at the continuing interest – fierce interest – in the desktop space. Where I’d believed that the trend towards the browser as platform would continue apace, there’s instead been a resurgence of investments – dollars and people – in non-browser application platforms. Platforms, essentially, that are one abstraction layer up from the operating system.

There are a handful of technologies that would see themselves crowned as the desktop of the future, or as Ted eloquently put it, the “Microsoft of the Web.” Which is a bit ironic, because while Microsoft is furiously striving to maintain its dominance in a world where what operating system you’re running on is often less important than which browser – see the generally unenthusiastic response to the near-decade-in-the-making Vista – a diverse set of players is seemingly attempting to achieve similar dominance, if not reimplement the Microsoft model one layer up.

Q: Can you provide examples of these “desktop” efforts?
A: Sure. Think Adobe’s Apollo, Eclipse’s RCP, Microsoft’s WPF/E, Sun’s J2SE and possibly even Mozilla’s XUL-Runner.

Q: Ah, so you’re talking about the RIA – the Rich Internet Application space?
A: Probably so, although I can’t say that I understand that term in any sort of concrete way. If the intent is to describe non-browser applications that are reliant on network functionality, then yes.

Q: So if I understand your argument correctly, you’re saying that these frameworks are pointless given the increasing popularity of SaaS type applications? That the writing’s on the wall, and it’s the browser?
A: No. There is now, and there will be for the foreseeable future, a need for rich client applications. Browser based applications have done a marvelous job over the past few years addressing some of their less forgivable shortcomings: interactivity (Ajax), featureset (plugins), and most recently offline access (Dojo Storage/Flash, Slingshot, Zimbra, Firefox 3.0, etc). But I’m not using one to write this post (that’s in Scribes), or handle my running IM sessions (those are in GAIM). Even should every conceivable technical limitation be remedied, however, there’s still user comfort levels and preferences. Rich clients, in other words, aren’t going anywhere.

Q: So what’s your contention then?
A: Merely that the level of interest and ambition is puzzling, as far as I’m concerned. Consider the following comments:

Adam Bosworth:
“My mother never complains that she needs a better client for Amazon. Instead, her interest is in better community tools, better book lists, easier ways to see the book lists, more trust in the reviewers, librarian discussions since she is a librarian, and so on.”

Tim Bray:
“On more than a few occasions—most recently in the context of Avalon—I’ve observed here that both IT admins and end-users prefer browser-based apps to traditional compiled clients, for everything except content creation. Every time, I get emails and incoming pointers from people saying ‘You just don’t get it, the Web interfaces are so tired, we really need a richer UI paradigm.’ The interesting thing is that these reactions are always—every time, without exception—from developers. Not once has an end-user type person written in saying they wished they could have a richer interface like the kind they used to have in compiled desktop apps.”

Then ask yourself the hard question: are these technologies in search of markets, or markets in search of technologies? Obviously I lean towards the former, but your mileage may vary.

Q: Are you contending then that the status quo is acceptable?
A: No, absolutely not. My objection is perhaps more appropriately defined as relating to the ambitions of some of the would-be players here. Put another way, I can’t say that I’m eagerly awaiting a future in which I need an Apollo runtime for one set of applications, an Eclipse runtime for another, a Java implementation for yet another, and a WPF/E runtime for yet another…oh wait, that doesn’t support my platform. And oh yeah, a browser too. Maybe two for the irritating one or two applications I use that are single browser targeted.

Q: What about the general ambition for local clients to become more network aware?
A: Could not be more strongly in favor of it. And I have been for a long time. Take the latest news out of GNOME-land: Havoc Pennington charts the course for a GNOME desktop version oriented towards online applications, manifested in a project called Big Board. While there is some dissatisfaction with the project’s lack of collaboration with existing solutions and focus on non-open source SaaS solutions, it’s clear to me that there’s an opportunity here, and a significant one. As I was discussing with Jeff the other day, why can’t EDS speak to Google’s Addressbook (particularly given that Joe’s got you halfway).

This was my precise train of thought, in fact, when I proposed that GNOME introduce Flickr as a potential backend for its wallpaper function (which Calvin Yu was kind enough to build).

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that I think GNOME and other open source desktops have an inherent advantage here versus commercial OS’s like OS X or Vista, in that they’re not required to advantage certain SaaS options – quite the opposite. But I digress.

Q: So you’re in favor of network aware applications, just skeptical of the runtime ambitions?
A: Just so. Particularly lately, because seemingly every technology project and product on the planet is headed at best speed towards a similar opportunity. I’m never one to say “there can be only one,” but I think the four or more we’re likely to see is a few too many.

Categories: Software-as-a-Service.

  • http://codinginparadise.org Brad Neuberg

    Interesting post. As one of the creators of Dojo Offline, in partnership with SitePen, I’m very interested in hearing your opinion of how Dojo Offline fits into all of this. How do you see it stack up against the other options and the ideas you lay out here?

    Best,
    Brad Neuberg

  • http://www.flex.org david

    Hi Stephen,

    interesting and thoughtfull post. A few reactions:

    “My mother never complains that she needs a better client for Amazon. ”

    I never did either. 5 years ago I bought all my music through Amazon. Now I buy all my music through iTunes-a non browser rich client application. Whoops. Consumers rarely anticipate paradigm changes, but when someone offers a better experience (more reponsive, more engaging, easier to use, simpler, faster, richer, etc) they leap to it.

    Who would have thought legions of coffee drinkers would happily jump from $.50 percolated coffee at Dunkin Donuts or McDs or home and spend $5 at Starbucks. Well, the folks at Starbucks did but I doubt many of their customers today thought they needed this ten years ago. People generally don’t anticipate paradigm changes, but they leap to better experiences.

    The odds that any one visionary will predict a future paradigm correctly are of course very slim. But the odds that the current paradigms will persist as long as most people think are (IMO) zero.

    Another example. I for one was a luddite when it came to cell phones for a long time. I figured, let phones be phones–I use it to call people. The idea that I would become proficient typing with a few fingers to send text messages would have been laughable to me a few years ago. Needless to say, I now use my phone more for data/text services than voice.

    In Japan, the most advanced wireless phone infrastructure and ecosystem in the world, there is already a $1.6B (that is Billion) economy around FlashLite and FlashCast on Phones, in just a few years. Did people know in advance that the needed all of this rich client expeirences on their device?

    “Put another way, I can’t say that I’m eagerly awaiting a future in which I need an Apollo runtime for one set of applications, an Eclipse runtime for another, a Java implementation for yet another, and a WPF/E runtime for yet another”

    Exactly. Get the runtimes out of the way. That is what we are doing with the Flash Player and Apollo. When you use You tube, you use You Tube. You need not even know that it is executing in the Flash Player virtual machine. And that is how it should be. Let the content and the functionality be what the human uses. Outside of our small technogeek world who even knows what a “runtime” is? When I write documents in Buzzword (currently still in private alpha) I have no experience of using “Apollo”. I just interect with my content and friends who are commenting on the doc. Why should Firefox or IE or Apollo or Eclipse impose its brand, metaphor, chrome, etc on my “experience”. What value do they add for me or for Buzzword? The browser is a good metaphor for some things. Why does it need to be the right metaphor for all things?

    The application I use the most hours per day at work is probably Acrobat Connect (formally Breeze). Why? I work in a remote office and am constantly communicating/collaborating with folks in other locations. This gives me a URL addressable space for real time collaboration and communication in a rich client. The browser plays a role–the URL bar gets me (and others) to my space, but beyond that has zero value to add. So why use it when the experience runs in a seamless cross platform rich client that is more ubiquitous than either Internet Explorer or Firefox?

    Runtimes like Apollo will never replace the browser for all things, but for the things where the browser doesn’t add value, and the different metaphor does, why not let the apps and content be free?

    As a publisher of applications, why have my experience and brand subservient to Internet Explorer or Firefox brands Their aims and brand are not (neccesarily) aligned with mine, why am I giving them top billing in my experience?

    Just some quick reactions.

    -David
    Adobe

  • http://www.jamesward.org James Ward

    Good thoughts Stephen. It reminds me of one of the conversations we had at the Java Posse Roundup… The concept of SaaS and Web 2.0 needs to extend to desktop applications. We can even call it Desktop 2.0. ;) But the idea is that Desktop applications should integrate with Web Services and exposes services themselves. Why do I have so many places my contacts are managed? Email client, LinkedIn, Yahoo IM, etc. Why can’t all these places I have “contacts” talk to each other, synchronize, etc? This is starting to happen in small niches, but Desktop 2.0 as a whole is a long ways off since most Desktop application vendors may be at risk of loosening their lock-in strategies if they move to more open models of integration. Can I at least imagine a world where I can edit a document in Word that automatically synchronizes to my Google Docs account? ;) As a consumer that is what I want, but of course MS doesn’t want that. Is Desktop 2.0 a pipe dream?

    -James

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  • http://redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    Brad: i see Dojo Storage as complimenting the browser technology. there’s no question in my mind – despite the objections of folks like DHH – that the browser experience would be complimented by additional offline capabilities.

    david: “I never did either. 5 years ago I bought all my music through Amazon. Now I buy all my music through iTunes-a non browser rich client application. Whoops. Consumers rarely anticipate paradigm changes, but when someone offers a better experience (more reponsive, more engaging, easier to use, simpler, faster, richer, etc) they leap to it.”

    it’s a good example, but i’m not sure how transferable it is. first, there’s the fact that the overwhelming majority of products sold on the web aren’t deliverable in a digital format. second, the example seems to imply separate stores for different item types: are we to have a separate rich client store for each item type? i for one hope not.

    the browser / webpage combination, imperfect as it may be, is the simplest solution that will work and thus the most popular.

    “As a publisher of applications, why have my experience and brand subservient to Internet Explorer or Firefox brands Their aims and brand are not (neccesarily) aligned with mine, why am I giving them top billing in my experience?”

    interesting. i’ve never heard this particular objection before. will have to do some digging to see if it’s more common than i realize.

    James: “Why do I have so many places my contacts are managed? Email client, LinkedIn, Yahoo IM, etc. Why can’t all these places I have “contacts” talk to each other, synchronize, etc? This is starting to happen in small niches, but Desktop 2.0 as a whole is a long ways off since most Desktop application vendors may be at risk of loosening their lock-in strategies if they move to more open models of integration.”

    amen, sir, amen. wrote this up in my Addressbook piece a while ago, and couldn’t agree more.

  • http://www.gandalf-lab.com/blog Niraj J

    “My mother never complains that she needs a better client for Amazon” . She will probably not complain for Amazon or eBay or other eCommerse Site but she will complain if she is using Google Documents. http://www.gandalf-lab.com/blog/2007/03/google-apps-and-openoffice.html . The traditional heavy users of desktop apps drive the desktop market share momentum and that in strenghthens MSFT.

    Note : I still think (as mentioned in my blog) that the advantage that GOOG has over MSFT is essentially a catch up game. Vista 2.0 will bring something amazing and GOOG’s stock will go down spiralling down its strong hold on mindshare and marketshare.

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