I’ve always had something of a love-hate relationship when it comes to webapps. I use a lot of them and by and large I like them. But there was always something about them that seemed just a tad bit … unnatural. I could never quite put my finger on it and over the years as I started to using them more and more I put my uneasiness down to just the newness of the whole thing. By and large, I managed to put it out of my mind or learn to just live with it.
Even today, the most elegant webapps are the ones that have embraced the document idea: Gmail and Simplenote make no pretense to be or mimic desktop apps. The reason that Gmail quickly became more popular than almost any other webmail client out there is that they took a different approach from everyone else: Gmail didn’t try to look or feel like a full desktop app, but it wasn’t just a webpage with links to your messages either. There was a very delicate balance of dynamism and static presentation that makes Gmail so great for the web (as well as no annoying banner ads).
I think the rise of the mobile web and the app store model for mobile devices is helping this new model of webapp become more popular. We’re seeing the rise of cloudtop services — services where the web interface is just one of a group of ways of interacting with the service. Take for example Simplenote and Dropbox. Both have a decent web interface, but also have mobile and desktop apps for the popular platforms and an API allowing others to build inventive applications on top of their services. This means that the webapp doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all of the user interface. There are many interfaces, each playing to the strengths of their respective platforms.
Of course not all services are going this route. 37signals makes some great web software (or so I’ve heard, I’m not a customer myselft). They’re going all out Web, at least for their Basecamp product. Will it work? Maybe. They claim it’s because they don’t want to have specialized apps for each platform. But the web itself is a platform and the fact that they say that you need a WebKit mobile browser makes it sound like they’re just choosing the web platform instead of native mobile platforms. I personally don’t agree with their direction (and their stated reasons for it), but it will be interesting to see what happens.
I think we’re living in a very exciting time with our technology going in numerous interesting directions. As the idea of cloudtop services becomes more popular, we’re going to see a plethora of native applications that play to the strengths of their native platforms. The ones that are successful on the web will embrace it’s document nature instead of trying to ape desktop apps. And it’s not just apps that we should be looking at, the meaning and scope of documents themselves will change and become better as the Web evolves and its technologies evolves. Stay tuned for part II where I look at some novel types of documents that the web is enabling.