June 21, 2007 Why do we still store all our applications and data on our local PCs? It ties us to our machines, leaves our files vulnerable, and frankly it's such a last-millennium way to do things. Thankfully, since the advent of ubiquitous broadband, companies are starting to take real steps toward a world where accessing anything on your hard-drive will be as versatile as checking your webmail. Disk storage, applications, processing - everything could eventually be moved off your local PC, which would become merely a display terminal - and the model holds a lot of advantages. Gizmag takes a look at where we're at with the Web Application revolution.
Consider for a moment some of the problems that are caused by having all your data and applications centralized on your PC:
1) Your entire digital life is wiped out if there's a fire or serious HD failure; 2) Each time you upgrade your hardware, you have to transfer all your data to a new machine and reinstall all your applications; 3) You're tied to that PC if you want to use the bulk of your applications, even if you've got the most sophisticated mobile device; 4) If you wish to use a data file away from your PC, you have to create multiple copies, which can lead to version control issues. 5) Even if you want to use a piece of software only once, you have to pay for a full license.
And how about the problems software companies have to deal with?
1) Every PC is different, so each piece of software needs to be able to run on a multitude of different system configurations 2) Users are responsible for their own setup and system admin, leading to all sorts of support issues 3) Each time a piece of software is upgraded, it merely adds to the number of versions out there that people are using, complicating support processes 4) Getting fix patches out to software users is a slow and unreliable process 5) Trial demos, one of the best ways to hook new customers, require massive downloads or physical CD/DVD shipping, both a disincentive. 6) Just about anything that can be put on a DVD can be cracked and pirated.
Clearly the current system is a compromise - but perhaps the best compromise we've had access to in recent years. But the incredibly fast uptake of high-speed, wide-pipe broadband in developed countries, and a few key moves by forward-thinking software companies are starting to produce a new model of personal computing that has been anticipated for many years.
Currently we view our PCs as our central storage and processing units, and our connections to the Web as being a gateway to the broader browsing, gaming and communications world. But what if we could move everything off our local PCs and merely access it online? The model is already up and working with a few key applications; big-storage webmail accounts like Google's Gmail mean your email is available from any device with a browser and a Web hook-up. Compared to a desktop-based client it's extremely simple, easy to use, convenient and very comparable in its feature level. Once you're used to a truly great webmail app, it's very hard to go back.
Then there's the online data storage companies, which are growing both in size and number, and starting to include some very forward-thinking ideas. Take FilesAnywhere for example, which is a fairly cheap online storage service that aims to take data off the PC and store it safely on secure Web-accessible servers. It provides an online document viewer, meaning that documents, spreadsheets and presentations can be easily viewed even on PCs that don't have the Microsoft Office software, and a very handy version control unit.
But data storage is just the first step - online Web applications are where the real revolution begins. Since around 2000, several companies around the world have been developing online, browser-based alternatives to mass-market productivity tools like Microsoft Office. The strongest challenge would appear to be from Google, who have quietly released their Google Docs and Spreadsheets tool - a very well-featured and intuitive online Word/Excel killer that lives in a browser window and is as simple and quick as everything else Google puts out - not to mention integrating very nicely with a range of other Google products. It stores all your documents, you can upload by emailing documents into it, and it supports group collaboration and version control. Oh, and it's free.
Microsoft have, as usual, been slow to move, preferring to let others do the trailblazing - their Office Live amounts to little more than online website building, document sharing and email. But if Google manages to bring web productivity applications into the public spotlight, we wouldn't expect Microsoft to be too far behind.
But what if you're offline?
One of the biggest passion-killers for moving to a web application model is the simple question of what happens when you can't get a net connection? A dumb terminal is just that when there's periods when it can't link in to its application server. You're locked out of documents and applications. But a solution's developing, again from the Google team, that could put this big issue to rest.
Google Gears is "an open source browser extension that lets developers create web applications that can run offline." Effectively, web apps designed to work with Google Gears will allow you to disconnect from the Web, taking a thin local copy of both the applications and their documents. You'll be able to work offline, then sync back to the master copies once you're reconnected. Gears will let web application developers offer a "best of both worlds" solution.
So what now?
So, ten or more years into the birth of the web application, where are we at? We've got some very strong and well-entrenched web apps like email clients, blog diaries, calendars, photo/video sharing and online backup socialized into the daily routines of millions. We've got common productivity applications starting to become a practical alternative to the monolithic client-side apps. We've got online games that don't require any local software becoming very common, and we've got a benign industry giant like Google putting a lot of eggs in the web-app basket.
Some things might take decades to be ready to go online - processor, graphics and memory-intensive apps like 3D modelling and design software would appear to be out of reach in the short term. But the inherent advantages - particularly the ability to charge flexibly, maintain a single version and greatly limit piracy - will surely see the major software companies putting more and more effort into this space. And as mobile technology and broadband speed keeps improving out of sight, consumer demand is sure to be there too.