When Web Apps Aren't


One of the ongoing debates I have with some of my co-workers are whether web apps are going to take over the majority of applications that users interact with on a daily basis, or whether the future will remain in the hands of internet-enabled desktop apps. I maintain that desktop apps with integrated connectivity are the future.  Many of my co-workers place their trust in software that only runs in the cloud.

So what is a web app?  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_app

In software engineering, a web application is an application that is accessed via a web browser over a network such as the Internet or an intranet….Web applications are popular due to the ubiquity of web browsers, and the convenience of using a web browser as a client, sometimes called a thin client. The ability to update and maintain web applications without distributing and installing software on potentially thousands of client computers is a key reason for their popularity, as is the inherent support for cross-platform compatibility.

The issue here is whether or not the software runs solely in the browser, or whether additional software needs to be downloaded and installed on the desktop in order for the application to work.  If I am on a locked-down computer in a Malaysian internet cafe, and cannot run a program without having to download and install something, it is not a web app.  It does not adhere to the requirement that the application can be used solely from a browser, without additional installation.  Well, just today I tried uploading a number of photos on Facebook and discovered that I could not do so without downloading (and installing) an .exe photo uploader.  Thus, Facebook broke the cardinal rule of web apps: no software distribution or installation.

So the question is whether or not this trend will continue.  Will more and more web applications require a separate download, the way Facebook and (say) Google Earth do?  Or, with the advent of technologies like HTML5, will the trend toward browser-only software continue?  My feeling is that we’re going to start to see the pendulum swing at some point, and the power and richness of web-enabled desktop apps return.  Thin clients will once again give way to thick clients.  But I am in the extreme minority.  Will thick clients return?  If so, why?  If not, why not?


  1. I’ve been playing a bit with the notion of a web app, and tried a slightly different angle by building Dido: http://projects.csail.mit.edu/exhibit/Dido . Dido is a web app without a server—it’s just a document you visit in your browser that lets you explore, interact with, edit, and then save (as a file) data. You can also use the build-in editor to change it into a completely different web app that you can share with other people.

    I built Dido to make the point that while “web app” carries a connotation of “web server and data in the cloud”, there’s enough power in the browser+javascript to make some pretty powerful self-contained applications that are simple web documents. Are they web apps? I don’t know.

  2. Javascript certainly has some rich interaction possibilities, but boy, it is a pain to use in its native form. GWT may be an improvement, but you have to be familiar with Java widgetry to use it effectively. I am waiting for a clean IDE interface that will let me focus on interaction design and layout in the way that (for example) Visual Studio does for .NET applications, rather than using the current messy tool set.

    As far as Dido goes, I think it is a web app. It certainly matches the definition that Jeremy cited. In some ways, I think it’s closer to web games than to data-heavy web applications (e.g., Google Docs, email, etc.).

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