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August 04, 2007

The great leap backward

There seems to be breathless excitement in many corners that there is now a "real" third party iphone app.

I think that this is in fact a great leap backward, and those who think that somehow these are better iPhone apps than web based ones are living in a world that is has already changed. Why should we be cheering for single platform locked down apps, when right now, an iPhone app will theoretically work on pretty much any user oriented web enabled device?

By making webapps first class applications, indeed the only way of developing applications for the device, regardless of their motivations or intentions, Apple with the iPhone has ushered in a new world, where the web is the platform. This has been talked about, and promised for many years (SUN's "the network is the computer" captures the idea succinctly), but it really finally has arrived. So the idea that somehow "native" iPhone devices are better than web based ones is profoundly reactionary.

Now, I've made my living writing desktop apps for 15 years, and for a quarter of a century, as a computer enthusiast at high school, computer science student at university, and beyond, lived in a world where the OS was the platform - it provided the services required for an application to run and be used. This new world challenges the framework within which I've lived and worked for all my adult life and more. And the business model which has underpinned my professional career. Yet, it excites me with its possibilities. We live in interesting times.

Via the web browser, the web becomes the platform. And an open one at that. Rather than an app which runs on Mac OS X, or Windows, or Linux, and needs to be substantially rewritten from platform to platform (I know about these things, Style Master is a first class Windows and Mac OS X app, sharing a lot of common code, but still totoally different code bases, UI designs, and much more besides), applications come much much closer to the "write once run anywhere" paradigm that Java promised (and failed) to deliver.

Beyond that, we are beginning to see challenges to the dominance of the WIMP (windows, icons, mouses and pull down menus) paradigm, which has served well for over 20 years, but which is particularly adapted to an isolated desktop environment (think of all the substandard laptop mousing solutions developed over the years for starters, and don't start me on trying to enter a 128 hex character shared key on my PSP's virtual keyboard to access my wifi network) but far less well for all manner of devices, some of which we've barely begun to imagine. Afterall, iPhone and Opera mini don't have menus, iPhone doesn't have menus or windows - we are left with merely icons.

Beyond interface innovation, conectedness becomes central to every application. Sharing of what we do, passively (like last.fm listening to what you listen to) or actively (for example wiki systems, or online office apps like google docs apps making collaborative creation much less complicated) becomes far simpler, and central to what many applications do. Pretty much every bit we create is intended to be communicated and shared, yet networking and collaboration are typically add ons at best to most desktop apps. Most text editors don't let me edit a file on an ftp server, let alone collaboratively edit documents over a network. Indeed, the fanfare that subetheredit received (rightly too) only two or three years ago illustrates just how isolated most desktop apps are.

Those days are rapidly coming to a close. Faster I think than anyone has predicted. Apple may not have conceived of the desktop, but there is little doubt they were the midwives at the birth of its commerial reality (Xerox Star notwithstanding), and they are there, active, at its demise.

Now I have to go away and think of how to personally avoid going the way of the dodo and the desktop in this new world.

PS

I'll still be developing Style Master, indeed we are working hard on version 5 right now, and ironically, due to the nature of web development in many cases, I think that web development tools will likely stay desktop apps for longer than many others.

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Comments

John, an interesting topic and I agree entirely. Its hard to see this new application as a step forward.

As platforms evolve and we use handheld devices more often there will no doubt be the obvious benefit of truely developing once for all platforms. Another interesting thing about these devices is that once we've stepped away from our desk then what becomes really important is the context - where are we? who are we? are we on holiday or on a working lunch? - because we can start looking at applications polling your device to find your context and repurpose or refine the content to fit you personally. And devices change so often - I may carry the iPhone this morning but forget it in the office and have the PDA but in the car later the Mobile running Opera Mini is my access to book tickets ...

So its interesting to hear your take on this one. I would hate to see that vision go down the non-universal road and have to develop for individual devices.

Posted by: Steven Clark | Aug 4, 2007 4:06:21 PM

John, think you maybe onto something here.

Having only seen the iphone from a far, I can't really comment on its UI etc.

However lets hope we don't end up within walled gardens creating apps for specific devices. It needs to be universal or the concept will never go mainstream. And mainstream is where the money is granted.

The interesting point of all this is the major desktop vendors don't even seem to to be aware or are not it appears to be thinking in the same space for all this. Or maybe they are. The fostering of support for RIA (AIR, Flex, Silverlight et al) maybe seen buy some as the universal solution. But then how universe is it really. Or maybe the next wave of RIA will being with it the device independent flexibility we are really looking for.

Change is good, just send me a memo before we all jump ship :)

Posted by: Gary Barber | Aug 4, 2007 7:55:44 PM

The platforms should not be the hindrance for the applications to run onto, but it should be manageable to all sorts of phone not just iphone to use its full potential.

Posted by: linux photoshop | Aug 4, 2007 10:25:39 PM

I don't know specifically about the iPhone javascript setup, but isn't one of the big disadvantages of a web app that you don't get access to all of the hardware on the device? Can an iPhone webapp use the camera to take a picture or hook into bluetooth to communicate with other devices near by?

I think as long as web applications are (necessarily for security reasons) limited access to the computer's resources there will be a place for both types of applications.

Posted by: Helen | Aug 7, 2007 10:25:09 PM