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The Future of Rich Web Apps: Melding the Web and the Desktop

Wharton experts discuss the various rich-web possibilities

Experts at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania have been considering the future of Web apps vs desktop apps. While they predict that any gap between web and desktop software will narrow in the future, one wild card is how well hybrid webtop/desktop applications will match the features of their desktop cousins.

"Creating a cross-platform application that 'feels right' to individual users of Windows, Mac and Linux platforms is a tricky task," notes Kendall Whitehouse, senior director of information technology at Wharton, at one point in the discussion, recorded in detail at Knowledge@Wharton web site. "But I'm sure the industry will get there. I have little doubt that this is where the future of software is headed."

While Andrea Matwyshyn, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton, believes that Google's model of always connected software the most likely winner in the future ("There will be an increased direction towards entirely services-based. Google is a harbinger of where the industry is going"), Whitehouse's view is that the winning provider of architecture for the next generation of software applications will be Adobe ("Architecturally, Adobe is in the sweet spot").

Krishnan Anand, also a professor of operations and information management at Wharton, takes a contrary position, stressing the limitations of today's web applications. He says:

"Reliability is critical for many of us. Even now, networks crash and I can't access files. I still have to make sure I have a copy on desktop. Until that changes, I don't see an advantage to web-based applications." 
In the discussion, the main three contenders' current positions are summarized as follows:

  • Adobe recently launched the second "beta" (test) version of the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR, formerly known as "Apollo"), a software development platform that allows developers to use web programming languages to create applications that can run as desktop software programs and will work on any of the major PC operating systems: Windows, Mac OS and, in the future, Linux. AIR applications can run both online or offline and can read and write files to the local PC just like desktop software. Some of the companies that have demonstrated AIR applications include AOL, eBay, Nickelodeon, Nasdaq and Salesforce.com.

  • Microsoft also has a vision of the hybrid future with a strategy heavily reliant on desktop software that it calls "software and services" in contrast to the more web-centric view of "software as a service" frequently espoused by companies like Salesforce.com. The embodiment of Microsoft's approach is its Office Live Workspace, a web-based supplement for Microsoft Office that allows Office customers to store documents on the web, view them online through a web browser and share them with others. Microsoft sees Office Live Workspace as an extension to, not a replacement for, its Office desktop software. According to the company's plans announced on September 30, users without Microsoft's desktop software will only be able to view and comment on -- but not edit -- the online versions of Office documents. Microsoft's goal appears to be to protect its lucrative desktop software franchise while hedging its bet against the rise of advertising- and subscription-based web services.

  • In contrast to Microsoft's desktop-oriented view, Google is placing its bet on a primarily web-centric vision of software delivery. Google Docs (formerly known as Google Docs and Spreadsheets), provides online versions of tools for word-processing, spreadsheets and presentations. These applications run entirely in the web browser and currently depend on Internet connectivity and remote file storage, although the company's Google Gears could allow web-based applications to run offline in the future. Matthew Glotzbach, product management director of Google Enterprise, said at the Interop 2007 Conference in New York on October 24 that Google runs its own productivity suite internally and is confident that web-based software is the future. "The game is changing the current set of productivity tools thatwere created for personal productivity. We've moved to this networked world where everything being online all the time is a huge advantage."
The full discussion can be read here. The other Wharton experts involved were Andrea Matwyshyn, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton, and Wharton information and operations management professor Eric Clemons.

More Stories By Salvatore Genovese

Salvatore Genovese is a Cloud Computing consultant and an i-technology blogger based in Rome, Italy. He occasionally blogs about SOA, start-ups, mergers and acquisitions, open source and bleeding-edge technologies, companies, and personalities. Sal can be reached at hamilton(at)sys-con.com.

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