Webified Desktop Apps vs Browser-based Apps
Written by Ebrahim Ezzy and edited by Richard MacManus. Ebrahim runs a search engine called Qube - which is a webified desktop app. Richard's Note: In some ways Ebrahim's conclusions in this article contradict my own views, but I think that makes it even more appropriate for Read/WriteWeb to publish. I'm looking forward to a robust discussion by readers in the comments section!
More and more applications these days are being webified - meaning "made to operate on the Web using a browser or made to function in a similar manner." This is because the Internet is capable of significantly augmenting human interaction, with its decentralized system of ubiquitous data accessibility.
WebOS, the remote desktop
We've already seen a wealth of desktop-replicated web applications in the web 2.0 space - office suites, calenders, task management. A webtop (derived from 'desktop') pushes that replication to its limit. Also known as a WebOS, it is basically a virtual desktop on the web. It is a simple, less bloated, less featured and remotely accessible operating environment that runs in a browser. It delivers a rich desktop-like experience, coupled with various built-in applications.
Popularized (in the Web 2.0 era) by Goowy among others, these products typically feature wallpapers, windows, toolbars, folders, work & entertainment tools, abilities like drag and drop - and other pseudo-useful features that have been available on desktops forever.
The concept is expected to appeal those who require seamless connectivity, even on-the-go. Common uses include file-sharing, a communication tool for families and small workgroups, office tasks (private word documents, calendar and agenda), Entertainment (Games, Chat, Music), as an FTP alternative, etc. Richard has been writing about WebOS companies for a while on ZDNet - and his recent post about EyeOS shows how WebOS products are being used by people.
Startups in this space
Goowy provides email (2GB), messenger, calendar, address book, News/RSS manager, file sharing & storage (1GB), games, and widgets (which they call mini). Developed mostly in Flash, Goowy also offers hosted version with added functionalities, for businesses. [Ed: Ryan Stewart wrote a great overview of Goowy on Read/WriteWeb in March]
DesktopTwo (also available in Spanish) provides email, address book, file storage and sharing (1GB), IM, blog, music player and a website editor in a nicely organized user-interface. It requires Flash, Acrobat Reader, and popup windows to function correctly. It's a nice name (DesktopTwo = Desktop 2.0, I guess) and my personal favorite.
Glide Effortless is a web-suite that handles media files - documents, photos, audio, and video - and also provides a handy word processor and calendar.
XIN is still in beta, but is evolving into a full-featured WebOS. In Richard's original review of XIN, he noted that XIN aims to be an entirely Web-based OS and as such is a full development platform.
YouOS has perhaps the most recognition of all the WebOS products - and high ideals too. The YouOS developers describe their product as "a liberation of software from hardware". According to Richard's article, YouOS wants the OS to be no longer a user's primary concern - it's your data and your apps that you only need to concern yourself with.
EyeOS (Open-Source) was developed in Spain and currently boasts 53,500 users in the main public server. In addition there are around 400 active servers installed by users. More in Richard's review.
Great Idea, Questionable Value
The Internet has changed how we access and use information. With a computer and a high-speed connection, no matter where you are, your world travels with you. Of course, while that might sound eminently desirable - the reality is sometimes not as romantic.
WebOS is a great idea, but in my opinion it has questionable value. It can be fun, exciting, entertaining and even convenient for some - but being as efficient, flexible and productive as a desktop is practically impossible. The majority of these applications are almost essentially superfluous, emphasizing novelty over substance.
Downsides of a WebOS
Works at the mercy of the network and the server load.
While the many enabling capabilities of network-based storage architectures are of substantial value - issues of authentication, access control, and security/privacy of the stored data remain. Are you going to let someone else handle your data? Would you trust a startup to protect your critical data? [Ed: for an interesting side argument, see this discussion of IBM's SoulPad from a year ago]
The privacy, control, reliability and performance issues prevent the WebOS from being an alternative to the ever-more-affordable and easy-to-use desktop.
WebOS requires a fast and reliable (if not flawless) connection to work correctly.
Inability to operate peripheral devices.
Web applications rely on open source infrastructure and an array of technologies and formats - and these are constantly changing, often with no regard for being backwards compatible.
As Fred Oliveira of WeBreakStuff nicely put it:
"...after service outsourcing and personal outsourcing, we’re seeing a new age of web-service outsourcing. One with no regulations - only expectations and hopes. Everything is based on trust, and trust sometimes fails.
And the problem here is that even with web-services as a liability, there’s no fallback mechanism, no alternative route, and no “competitor service” that can be plugged into an app in the timely manner like web 2.0 applications require.
This proves that purely mash-up based applications have small foundations, and like a house with no foundations, they may fail to resist, should the unexpected happen."
(bold emphasis mine)
I should note that without a leap of faith, no idea or innovation can get off the ground. However, several other factors make web applications like WebOS less secure, less productive and unreliable.
Improve the desktop instead
I rely on various web applications to create documents, presentations, spreadsheets; share images, videos, data; manage and organize tasks, projects and life. But I still believe the future of computing isn't entirely web-based. It's necessary to have the desktop as the pivotal point, because the power of the desktop is important for a rich user experience - and will be, for a very long time to come.
What we require then are smart, webified, internet deployable desktop applications - that can reliably store data, serve it robustly, and interact with both remote and local databases. This connected model will ensure that applications will function in both online and offline states - for a seamless, uninterrupted experience.
Companies that are vying to be the prime desktop development platform include Microsoft, Adobe and (increasingly) Google. Ryan Stewart has a good post summarizing the main desktop platforms. See also Techworld.com on Windows Vista and virtualisation.
Webified Desktop Applications
There are many examples of desktop applications that benefit from the connectivity and mobility of web-based data:
Windows Live Writer provides a powerful replacement for web-based blogging.
Word 2007 will also allow blogging from Open API.
Utilizing the power of desktop and a remotely hosted environment, SecondLife provides a unique type of gameplay that would be impossible on the desktop alone.
The NYTimes Reader "enhances the on-screen reading experience" by providing functionalities in a desktop application that weren't achievable through a web-based interface (see also the R/WW review).
iTunes integrates with its online music store and generates an impressive revenue stream.
Using Excel 2007, a spreadsheet author will be able to save their spreadsheet to a SharePoint (Microsoft's web-based collaboration tool) document library and give other users browser-based access to the server-calculated version of that spreadsheet.
Other examples include Webaroo (offline search), PicasaWeb (Desktop Photo organizer and uploader), Omnidrive (data storage), Omniscope (data filtering and manipulation), Qube (browserless, desktop search), TouchStone (information management - private alpha) etc.
As the Web becomes increasingly interconnected and applications continue to blur the distinction between the desktop and web, we should expect to see more applications that allow Web/desktop synchronization. This will happen due to the increasing development of web services that enable apps to work equally well across web and desktop clients.
I will continue to use WebOS and other web-based productivity applications, just to appease the Web 2.0 spirit within me. But the fact remains that Webified (or "connected") desktop applications are noticeably superior, offering almost all the benefits of web applications without any limitations. Indeed, I think the two environments are not even directly comparable.
However, in the end desktop and web are just small outposts in a much larger world of information creation, collaboration, distribution, management, and presentation. What ultimately matters is productivity, scalability and speed.
If (and it's a big 'if') the web will render the desktop obsolete someday, then I'll be more inclined to accept the new norm of web apps and services.
UPDATE: We've published a poll, for you to tell us which type of app you prefer - desktop or browser-based.