A few years ago, the world of computing looked pretty grim. Everyone was struggling work with an operating system and matching applications that were so poorly designed, unreliable, and virus-ridden as to make it borderline impossible to do anything useful. Even if you didn’t use that particular operating system yourself, others basically required you to use it if you wanted to collaborate with them, due to proprietary document formats. Everything sucked, really bad.
But the worst part was, no one seemed to notice. Everyone just sort of plugged along, fighting to make their computers do anything useful, somehow believing that maybe just one more reboot might deliver them from their misery.
I’m pleased to report, however, that there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. We’re not there yet, but it’s in sight. Although a certain unreliable operating system remains popular, alternatives such as Mac OS X have been gaining ground steadily. Much more importantly, though, is this: the operating system doesn’t matter that much anymore.
So having a crappy operating system may soon be only a minor annoyance, instead of the near show-stopper it once was. But this is not a new prediction. Respected names in the IT industry have been rattling off pithy phrases like “the network is the computer” for nearly as long as the web has been around. But that dream never quite seemed to materialize. Web apps are great and all, but they are simply not powerful enough to handle the bulk of modern office work. Email, word processing, spreadsheets, and most recently, chat: these are the apps that Joe Cubicle uses all day long.
But wait, you say - at least email is available as a web application, right? True, but - despite its popularity - webmail’s usability bites. Ask anyone who has ever spent an hour trying to delete all the spam in their hotmail inbox by going through page after page of checkboxes. People like webmail clients for the convenience of being able to access it anywhere, but for serious email needs (i.e. most office work), webmail just won’t cut it.
That is, until now. GMail has gotten a lot of attention for being much better than other webmail services, but this actually isn’t all that remarkable given that webmail generally stinks for any sort of series use. No, the significant news is that GMail is better than most desktop mail clients. People want to use GMail instead of Outlook or Apple Mail not for just the convenience, but also because it’s more powerful and more usable.
GMail is not the only modern web application (”Web 2.0″ if you’re into buzzwords) that is challenging the reign of desktop apps in the office. 37signals has a host of small but extremely useful productivity apps including chat, todo list tracking, and a virtual whiteboard. All of these are 100% web based, and for the most part they’ll beat the pants off any equivalent desktop application.
Perhaps most exciting of all are web-based challenges to the longstanding hegemony of the desktop office suite. Despite valiant efforts to create open, cross-platform office apps, this is an area that still has that 1998 feeling of “it sucks, but you don’t have a choice” hanging about it. Closed, fragile document formats accessible only through monolithic, locally-installed applications still rule here. Collaboration is a joke, mostly done by emailing back and forth weighty document files for even tiny revisions (and the authors constantly getting confused about which is the most current version). Accessing documents remotely is, well, pretty much impossible.
All of this will change with applications like Writely. This thing is awesome. It’s a fully-featured word processor that runs right in your browser. And like GMail or the 37signals apps, as near as I can tell it actually beats desktop word processors in many areas of usability, responsiveness, and overall power. (Disclosure: I haven’t used it for anything major, so the jury is still out on whether it is yet mature enough for heavy-duty document manipulation.)
The best part is Writely’s native document format. Document formats have been a huge issue for the last decade. For example, Neal Stephenson describes how he lost much of his early writing created in an older version of MS Word: current versions won’t load the files anymore. Recently this debate has heated up as national governments have started to worry about the longevity of their electronic documents. What happens in a decade or two when government records written in this era can no longer be accessed, due to being locked up in a proprietary, highly cryptic format that no current program can read? One can imagine how this could be a bit of a problem. Some European countries have already passed laws banning use of closed document formats, and the apps that create them, because of this issue. Massive collaborations have tried to address this matter with open document formats. Unfortunately, this has proven to be a somewhat clumsy and difficult-to-implement solution. The reality is that saving an open document format in one program and loading it in another rarely preserves anything but the basic content.
Writely uses an elegant shortcut, one that is jaw-droppingly, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that simple: HTML.
Yeah, really. HTML as the native document format - duh! HTML is already a well-defined, completely open standard. It’s cross-platform and cross-application, not the native format of one application that’s been opened to everyone else (as is the case with Oasis, PDF, and most other open document formats).
But more importantly, it’s the format that matters. People mostly read web pages now, not printouts. The term “document” is semi-interchangeable with “web page” these days; in a decade or so I bet the two terms will actually be synonymous. DOC and PDF are already a little bit passé; in a few more years I suspect that trying to send someone one of these will produce gales of laughter. “What the hell is this crap? I said send me a document. You know, a link to the web page!”
People do seem to have a weird obsession with imitating paper on the computer screen. They like to make documents that are designed to be printed out, even though in most cases the document will just be viewed with a PDF viewer or word processor onscreen. Writely’s approach bridges that gap: it pretends to be a conventional word processor, but it’s really an HTML authoring tool with an emphasis on writing instead of layout or graphic design. This may be a step on the path to getting office workers to let go of their anachronistic desire to simulate paper. They’ll use Writely which feels like a word processor, and thus lets them fool themselves into thinking they are creating print-centric documents. When in fact they are really creating HTML suitable for web publishing.
Writely can import MS Word and OpenOffice formats, and does so beautifully that I can see. Of course you can print and export to PDF for anyone still stuck in that it-must-look-like-paper paradigm. It also offers true collaboration and document sharing, revision control, automated publication to a blog or other public URL, and of course, remote access. In short, all the stuff people love about web apps. And did I mention it loads faster (instantaneously, really) than OpenOffice or MS Word? Sweeeeet.
Unfortunately Writely seems to be closed to new registrations right now, so you can’t try out the Web 2.0 goodness for yourself. But there are similar apps for other office categories, such as the iRows spreadsheet or the 30 Boxes calendar. (And don’t forget those 37signals apps I mentioned earlier.) Not all of these are yet as mature or usable as their desktop counterparts, but they are closing the gap quickly. It’s not hard to imagine how they will reach and then surpass the bar set by desktop apps in true disruptive technology fashion.
So: now that all your important apps are in your browser, all that really matters on your local machine is the browser. And of course, everyone in the know now uses Firefox. (Although take note that the beauty of web standards means that you can use any compliant browser to access these apps, now and in the future.) So the operating system has been reduced to what it really should be: an underlying architecture that interfaces to your hardware.
Certain types of graphics and audio apps continue to be infeasible on the web. But this is a smallish minority of what people use computers for and besides, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before these areas area encroached upon by the ever expanding power of the web.
Modern computing is emerging from its dark ages. The enlightenment is not here quite yet, but it’s not far out. I, for one, am finding myself looking forward to the future of computing with a newfound sense of hope.