Online vs. Desktop

With the Web 2.0 movement (technically, is it still a movement?) booming and more and more feature-rich sites being launched everyday, this question is now at the forefront: do I use conventional desktop applications or move to web-centered, online apps?

Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, Google Reader, BlueDot, Digg, del.icio.us, Plaxo, Google Docs & Spreadsheets. To name a few. These “enhanced websites” offer a variety of functionality from e-mail to bookmarking to address book synchronization and even “Word” and “Excel” documents. Rather than firing up Office or Mail.app, why not just launch Firefox or Safari?

I have been wrestling with this question for the past few weeks as I have been discovering and sampling a breadth of online replacements for my favorite desktop-centered applications. To be sure, there are challenges with both offerings; not the least of which is the requirement for an active Internet connection to even access the long list of applications I’ve listed above. On the flip-side, how many hours per day (on a “normal” day) are you without a connection to the Internet? For some of you, it may be a sizable amount of time. For me? Not including my BlackBerry (which technically gives me 24/7/365 access to the web unless I’m on an airplane), I’m not connected (and not sleeping) at maximum 9 hours per day. As wireless becomes even more pervasive, that number will keep dropping until “I don’t have a connection” is no longer an excuse.

I’ve always been one to use desktop applications. When I was younger, I would go through a great deal of trouble in order to get Outlook working for my e-mail accounts. Now, I seek out the best of the best for my desktop apps. Mail.app, NewsFire, Address Book, iCal, OpenOffice (once again, to name a few). I like the integration on my desktop, how things click together and just work.

I’m a stickler for aesthetics. One of the biggest reasons I switched to Mac last year was because of the beauty of OS X. A functionally sound (built on a UNIX backend), aesthetically astounding operating system installed on a beautiful piece of hardware. Again, that’s where these desktop applications come in. They’re designed to take advantage of the aesthetic abilities of OS X and fit right in. However, as more Web 2.0 advancements pop up here and there the lines between a desktop application and webpage are continuing to blur. With AJAX we are no longer plagued with constant page refreshes. New transition and movement effects allow the user to feel like they are truly interacting with the webapp, rather than just merely using it.

While webapps are getting prettier, they still are a long way from the seamless integration of the desktop. So if it’s not truly aesthetics, what makes me ponder this question of online vs. desktop? One word: Synchronization.

I work on not one, but two (and if you get technical, three) different computers everyday. What does this mean? It means I read e-mail and RSS feeds on 3 computers. It means I have 3 different copies of my calendar and address book. It means e-mail attachments and USB keys are my best friends. It means it’s a pain to keep all 3 computers on the same page.

I would read e-mail throughout the day while at work (or on my BlackBerry) just to arrive home and have all of that e-mail still unread. I would skim my RSS feeds and mark them all as read throughout the day just to arrive home and have 192 articles waiting for me. I’d add an entry to my address book just to…well, you get the picture.

I wanted the state of my information to be known across all of my devices. No matter where I was, no matter what computer/handheld/kiosk I was using everything was updated. Now I’m not saying that a few webapps have gotten me to the point of true synchronization. No, that day is still a ways away. But it has helped me take a few strides forward.

One Reply to “Online vs. Desktop”

  1. First… props on the fancy new web page David. This used to be a LiveJournal, right? I’m confused as to how you kept the RSS feed.

    Second… Web 2.0. Hmm. I’ve been doing some AJAX programming recently and it’s very interesting stuff. Real potential. But it also has real potential for being screwed up. Unless there are some serious standards for data storage and transfer, people are going to end up having their data locked up in weird formats.

    Interestingly, I spent a weekend camping with a friend of mine who works at Google and there were several other googlers present. Apparently Google is pretty frustrated trying to achieve the possibilities of the Web 2.0 because of poor web browsers. See, most browsers are designed to be refreshed every couple of minutes, so things like memory leaks aren’t a problem. But, with an AJAX app, you never refresh… so the memory leaks just build up. Even on Firefox, you leave gmail open long enough and it will bring the whole system to a grinding halt.

    Third… I like icons and desktop integration, dammit! Maybe we wouldn’t be going after this new web thing if people were using desktops that actually made people’s lives easier, as opposed to that awful Windows desktop.

    Yuk.

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