Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Are web apps moving to the Desktop?

I saw an article on Ajaxian yesterday noting that Google was now allowing you to use their APIs in non-Ajax applications. For instance, you can now use their translation API from the server, or in a Flash application, or perhaps even from a VB application.

This combined with the release of Adobe AIR, a platform form running "web applications" on the client, makes me wonder if the future of "Web 2.0" applications is not in the browser, but on your desktop.

If you look at AIR, the attraction seems to be that it allows you to utilize resources on the client PC, going beyond the capabilities of JavaScript in the browser. On the other hand, don't count out the browser.

At the heart of the Firefox browser is XUL Runner, an engine that allows you to build applications on top of the XUL markup language and JavaScript, along with the ability to use resources on the local PC. A more recent tool is the Google Gears browser plugin, which essentially puts a SQL Lite database engine in the browser.

So what is all of this mean for the future of the industry? It seems obvious that the push is to turn the web application of old into a desktop application. These applications will go beyond Ajax, allowing the application to use resources on the client PC such as databases, access to the file system, and will in general be runnable even when no Internet connection is present.

I embrace this future, but I question its popularity. Yes, I expect that GMail will have off-line access for most of their apps by utilizing Google Gears. I am sure AIR will be a success as companies roll out "desktop" apps using the platform. And I expect that there will be others... a lot of others.

I think this is where the problem lies. When the term "Ajax" was coined, it was available almost everywhere, support for it was ubiquitous. This I believe led to its immediate adoption and the state of the web today. But for off-line web applications the story is different. There are too many tools out there, and in all cases the user needs to download and install software on their computer.

My hope is that all of these tools can get along, but the reality is that this is unlikely to occur. As a user of these applications you will be faced with a choice. You can user install the Google tools for Google apps, Microsoft tools for their apps, and Yahoo tools for their apps... or you just won't use them.

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