Sunday, August 29, 2004

Web Programs

The trend these days is to refashion traditional applications as web programs; start-up company PR statements declaim upon the obsolescence of any software that is not accessed through a browser; almost everyone I know uses a web-based email system. I feel, though, that the uniformity and simplicity of web-browsing, while making it an good medium for relatively passive information retrieval, draws out of a program the potential to embody a spirit of its own. Reading about the devoted fans of XYWrite (Check out to find a nice article on the cadre of users tending the temple of that word processor.), and how their fingers became intimate with customized keystrokes of their setup so that they could manipulate the program almost subconsciously, I saw that the level of connection between a user and her daily programs has become much more superficial in this time. A program's user-interface used to express a certain computing philosophy of the author---and could span the range from elegant, when the program's behavior was in accord with the user's thinking, to nauseatingly unintuitive---but on the web, user-interface design is distilled to the question, "Where should the user click?" It makes using a new program simple, but it severely constricts how a new program may act. Every text box on the web has the same primitive editing functionality, and as people have moved "forward" from terminal connections to check their mail, to web-mail programs, they've endured a accompanying decrease in efficiency. Gmail, the interface of which is lauded as quite advanced, uses heaps of JavaScript to bring novel features to web-mail, such as... keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts? You mean like a real program? And even such modest improvements restrict the brands and versions of browsers that work with Gmail, somewhat reducing the basis for having web-programs in the first place. Experienced users of Pine, Mutt, VM, or myriad other character-based mail clients, can ply through their mail in a fraction of the time that webmail devotees spend waiting for the endless round-trip pages to load.

Universal accessibility of one's programs and data is a very good thing, so for many aspects of computing, like email, having some fat client for Windows only, or Linux only, or something else only, is a poor option. And so what, should everyone be using character-based applications? Well, never mind that---but what could the web experience have been if things happened a little differently? Let us say Java had succeeded on the client (not to say that it won't do so, or some Java-like environment), and every computer one would come to in the Internet cafes of the world would have a Java VM installed. Then, when one went to, say,, instead of getting the cumbersome pages we've become so accustomed to, a mail applet (probably cached locally, since a previous user had checked his Yahoo mail) would load in a few seconds, and then one would have the quick response and sleek interface of a local mail client, like Eudora or Thunderbird (Or Outlook. *cough*), as well as the near-ubiquitous access and server-stored data that web programs have today.

Think of the wars that have been waged throughout personal computing's years between devotees of WordPerfect vs. Word, Emacs vs. Vi, PageMaker vs. QuarkXpress---web-programs are geared towards a superficial knowledge of their layout, and in such a case, can there even be such a thing as a devotee?

For many types of web-pages, a traditional browser interface is indeed the best thing, but I hope that the future of computing won't be restricted to programs whose bodies are so conventional.

Wow, I feel nerdy right now. I think I'll go play with my pocket protector for a while.

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