What is a Web Application?
Sunday, March 12, 2000 by Dave Winer.
On Tuesday at Esther's in Phoenix, I will lead a panel of experts to explore a relatively new area called Web Applications. This is one of those pieces where I outline a speech to memorize it so it will go over well without slideshows and software demos. There are so many ways for those things to go wrong. Just speaking is good enough for me for now.
Simply, there are two kinds of Web sites, those that behave like magazines, places where you read stuff; and sites that behave like software, places where you go to do stuff.
Examples of magazines include the NY Times and Newsweek sites, Weblogs like Robot Wisdom, Evhead and Scripting News, the Encyclopedia Britannica, Fast Company and the Van Gogh Museum. These are published sites, created by writers, designers and graphics people.
Examples of applications include Yahoo's calendar, Hotmail's email tools, Register.com's registration page. These are software tools and utilities that run on a server and interface through a Web browser like MSIE and Netscape. The people who create Web applications are programmers and user interface designers, experts in creating software. There is some overlap between magazine and application designers. There are words and graphics in software, but the design job is different when the user's words, pictures and data are in the design too. It's more complicated.
Anyway, today we're talking about the applications, not the magazines.
Interestingly, they're much like the desktop apps we used to (and many still do) use.
The Web-based calendar is like desktop calendars. Hotmail is like Outlook Express or Eudora, but running in a Web browser. Register.com is like Norton Utilities, but the computer you're maintaining is one we all share! A virtual computer, if you will. An exciting idea of course. And it works, DoS attacks and all. An amazing human accomplishment. I digress.
Web Apps are better than their desktop counterparts because they're incredibly portable. I still travel with my laptop, but there's less panic as I leave, did I forget to bring a critical file with me? Not a problem if my calendar and writing environment are on the Web.
There's been a lot of new activity in Web applications for a simple reason. It takes time to figure a new environment out. The Web browser is one of the toughest user interface environments we've ever had to develop for. It's even weaker than the Apple II, not quite HyperCard or VB, but more powerful than CP/M or Unix. But it's a big step-back from the UI power of desktop apps and graphic user interfaces.
Think about menus. How many commands can you put in links on a Web page? How many commands can you comfortably put in a menu bar? Far more, without exhausting the user with a multitude of choices. An example, I like MSNBC because they have menus that work like the menus in desktop apps. I wish every Website had these features.
What about Microsoft? The rate of progress is at least somewhat gaited by the sole surviving browser vendor. This raises a fundamental question for developers of Web applications. How far out on the MS limb do you go? What if they break your apps? This will be an interesting question for some of the members of our panel on Tuesday afternoon.
Will the space of Web Applications evolve as the desktop space did? Will there be a push towards standardized user interfaces or will Website designers forever be creative? Many of the most visually pleasing Web App sites are ridiculously difficult to use. Gotchas, glitches and dead-ends. While you're stuck, little creatures dance and sing. They're very beautiful, if I had time to notice.
Yahoo, after all, is still the most popular Web app out there. Not much eye candy there.
Remember OLE, OpenDoc, Java Beans, etc. Will there be counterparts in Web Apps? Ways for apps to be componentized and linked and combined? Or will they be monolithic integrated apps like Symphony and Framework? This is why I'm interested in XML-RPC and SOAP. I believe in the power of choice!
What about interfaces between desktop apps and Web Apps? I think this is essential. What do others think?
Andrew Wooldridge, a designer at Netscape working on Mozilla, runs a Manila site on Web Apps.
I trust Andrew, he gets the best links. I highly recommend bookmarking this site if you're interested in this area.