Desktop apps could fight back

I use Google Reader to read my RSS feeds and there are two things about it that I especially like :

  1. It has a fantastic user interface.
  2. My feeds are available for me both from my home computer and at work, and whatever feeds I signup here, I can read there as well.

It’s very hard to build a convincingly responsive UI using web technologies even with all the Ajax buzz, and Google is among the few companies that can actually pull it of. It’s so much easier to build desktop software even if you’re dealing with support for multi platforms (and as I’ve recently discovered it’s no fun for web app developers either). The problem with desktop software is that wherever you install it, you have to configure it, usually from scratch. My home Thunderbird configuration isn’t quite exactly what it is in the office, even if all of my actual email messages are on an IMAP server, and my address books aren’t in sync in an especially annoying way.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. Do you know what roaming profiles are? This is a not-well-known feature of Windows that allows the entire user configuration (including the My Documents folder) to be stored on a remote server and copied to the local HD whenever the user logs on. When it works correctly (and it rarely does), it allows you to use any computer in a company and (hopefully) not even notice that you’ve changed computers because everything (down to the wallpaper) has moved along with you.

Okay, so that’s a little ambitious, but IM clients have been doing that on a smaller scale for quite a while now. ICQ, MSN Messenger and Skype all store the contact lists on a server, and it’s very handy.

One of the reasons for which web replacements for classical desktop applications are so populate ability to move from one computer to another and having all your information and configuration at your fingertips. The other is the fact the desktop software needs to be installed, but even my mom can do the “next, next, next” dance. However, people don’t roam aimlessly between computers. There are actually three levels of mobility possible:

  1. You may have a single computer you always work on.
  2. You may have two or tree personal computers – one at home, one at work and maybe a laptop.
    Each is personal in the sense that you install the software that you like and configure it just so.
  3. You don’t own a computer and only use airport internet stands, internet cafes and the like.

I think we can safely assume that most people fall in categories 1 and 2 and use a small number of computers they consider their own. I would appear that BeInSync realized that, but they’re talking about synchronizing files and I’m talking about synchronizing the way you’ve personalized your computer and the applications on it.

Such an ability (either on the application or on the operating system level) could bridge the gap between web applications and desktop applications by mixing the power of the rich UI with the seamlessness of the Internet. In the battle between desktop applications and web applications, the web seems to be winning, and it shouldn’t – at least not for everything. There’s so much the desktop can offer in terms of responsiveness and user experience that it’s a waste to confine yourself to the boundaries of the browser. I think however, that desktop application developers and the companies they work for haven’t yet learned to harness the power of the internet and instead view it as a rival that should be feared. Even applications such as Firefox don’t use the net to it’s full potential. Why can’t my bookmarks be stored on a server somewhere? Why can’t the list of extensions I’ve installed and the options I have configured for them be stored at the same location?

There are some issues(security comes to mind) that need to be taken care of, but I think the moment desktop application developers realize that the only thing that actually needs to be on the desktop is the compiled code itself and put everything else (documents and settings) on a server, the tide might change and the futile attempt to create web-based spread sheets and movie editors will cease.

P.S. The photo at the top of this post has nothing to do with the subject at hand. It’s just a nice photo by David Aaron Sercel whose Google widget has a place of honor on my Google homepage.

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