January 10, 2006

The Age of Web Applications

Ever since the world wide web hit critical mass, technology commentators have been speculating about the day when thin-client computers would be all we need - the theory was that all the applications we use (word processors, email etc.) would run on a server, and your computer would merely log on to use them.

In this scenario companies like Microsoft might run into trouble as customers no longer need to spend hundreds of dollars on Word processing software, as it is made available on-line for a small fee. The other benefit of 'thin-client' computing is that the user no longer needs to take responsibility for saving and backing up their work. All saving is done automatically, and backups responsibility lies with the server rather then the end user. Additionally, new versions of the software (or interface) can be deployed quickly and efficiently without end-user intervention.

The problem in the past has been that HTML the language of the Internet has been limited and very basic, and bandwidth (the speed of your internet connection) has been too slow. However, in the past few years a new web language has emerged called DHTML (Dynamic HTML) which allows web pages to be dramatically more interactive and complex, and broadband is now common place.

The first major category of web-based applications to arise was email - Sites like Hotmail and Yahoo Mail have been around for years now, but Gmail, web mail from Google makes the use of an offline email client a thing of the past. The web-based DHTML and javascript interface is fast and easy to use and means that you can check your email (Gmail has a limit of over 2.5Gb) from nearly computer on the earth. It also means that if your computer hard drive crashes all of your email is safely backed up.

The next major category of web-based applications gaining in popularity is word processors - and one that I have started using recently is called Writely. Writely is an on-line version of Microsoft Word, except at the moment it is free. Writely backs up your data often so if you forget to save it does it automatically, it also lets you import existing Word or RTF documents, and lets you export any document you produce as Word, PDF, OpenDoc, ZIP or HTML file. Writely lets you insert hyperlinks, images and tables just as easily as you can in Microsoft Word. In my opinion most MS Word users probably only use about 20% of the features available - and Writely has included all of these features in it's offering. Writely also offers another feature that Microsoft Word makes difficult - collaboration between multiple users.

Collaboration is always difficult in an offline world as versioning of documents becomes very import. Who made which edit when? With Writely all you do is select your collaborators, they log in to your document and start making changes. If you all edit the document at the same time simply click refresh and you'll see the latest version. This is a handy feature and I imagine it will be of huge assistance to people that regularly need to collaborate on their documents like professionals and tertiary students.

Over time web applications will become more and more common place, and the requirement to travel around with your data will disappear - Instead all of your data will be securely stored online and accessible from any computer anywhere in the world.