When did the browser become the application platform?

Microsoft was right to crush Netscape and Java. I realized the other day that I spend a huge portion of my time in a browser. I use Firefox on the PC at work and Safari on the Mac at home. From home, I will have Outlook Web Access on one tab, Gmail in another tab, Blogware in a third tab (for accessing my blog), my actual blog site in a fourth tab, Salesforce.com in a fifth tab, OneSource or EDGAR Online in another couple of tabs, and then some other miscellaneous sites open in another couple of tabs. So there I have around ten different “applications” (using the term loosely) and I haven’t left my browser. The salesforce contacts, calendar and tasks are also synced to my Outlook. And yes, Outlook is easier to use than Salesforce but isn’t as up to date because it takes too long to sync, so I end up just staying in the web app. And it doesn’t actually suck. In fact, for most operations, it is quite fast and the hyperlinks on the field data allow the user to jump around from the contact to the company to the opportunities very quickly – probably more quickly than in a desktop app without that hyperlinking capability.

When did this happen? When did I stop using Entourage at home and start using Gmail? When I started working and wanted access to all of my personal email from the office. Now I want to import all of my last 15 years of email into Gmail but that’s a big pain in the ass. The best tool for doing this (Mark Lyon’s Gmail Loader) still can’t get around the fact that when the email is redirected, Gmail rewrites the received dates so that they are no longer connected to their dates in 1982. Without that, you have no proper date order and lose a lot of meaning. But that is a tangent.

This entire movement onto the web is yet another example of the Benefit Exchange And Catch-up Loop . I coined this horribly unmemorable theory name about 5 seconds ago but I have been thinking about it for a long time. If you have a better name for it, please comment below.

It seems that we in technology have been continually going through these transitions where we lose functionality but we gain some other major benefits that make it worth the loss. And then eventually, over time, the features and benefits that we gave up are slowly integrated back in again.

Remember Quickmail from 1989? It had full formatting, read receipts, attachments, redirects, forwards, and you could even send calendar appointments. Same with Lotus Notes. Same with some of the other major proprietary thick client applications of the day. If you really remember these times, you will also remember that your mail system didn’t connect to anybody else’s system, unless you had a very expensive bridge on it.

Then along came the internet. It became a much more important criteria for mail systems to connect with each other. They all scrambled to integrate bridges and had to drop the mail protocols down to lowest common denominator – namely, date/time stamps, names, addresses, subject lines, and bodies. Attachments didn’t always make it. Read Receipts didn’t work. Formatting didn’t format. But most of the time, ona a good day, the message core would make it end to end.

People hated the loss of functionality but they paid the price because the benefit of connecting even at a lower functional level with the greater world was so astoundingly useful, it didn’t matter if they gave up some whistles and bells.

And now, we have HTML email with fancy formatting and attachments that work across platforms and email clients. Read receipts still don’t work reliably but they’re coming. I would say that on the email front we’re back to 8/10 of the functionality we used to have but now it’s global.

In terms of group calendaring, we lost a lot of functionality and are only now beginning to claw our way back to full functionality across platforms with the onset of WebDAV, iCAL formats, and the like. I’d say we’re really only about 3/10 of where we were ten or fifteen years ago. But that 3/10 is sort of interoperable.

We saw this progression in audio.  The world was moving to higher and higher levels of audio quality in home sound systems. And then we jumped to digital storage, MP3 players of all shapes and sizes (including the iPod), and audio quality went for the most part down the tubes. Not because digital is inherently lower quality but because the default settings of most players are optimized for capacity, not quality. And suddenly, everybody is now listening to low-grade audio from their iPods into their home stereos. Because we were willing to trade the benefit of high audio quality for the benefit of flexibility, portability, and share-ability that came with being digital.

Now, we come back to web applications. The same principle applies. I am willing to put up with a much more kludgy interface on Gmail than I had in Entourage because I can log into it from anywhere, and I can search it in seconds instead of minutes. Corporately, my company was willing to trade the desktop application benefits of speed and power for the economic benefits inherent in not having to support 1500+ desktop applications and the benefits of speed, since the new app that we use (Salesforce) is hosted in a data center that is much faster than what we would have built. The great benefit swap has won again. We have a low-powered application with limited functionality and we chose this on purpose so that we could have speed and lower maintenance costs. We leapt across that chasm and there is no going back. And yet, revision by revision, web applications get better, faster, simpler, and more useful. Within a few short years, we’ll be surprised if anybody writes a thick client application anymore I would guess. Because if they need to connect with others, why wouldn’t it be web-based and accessible everywhere?

So there you go, the Benefit Exchange And Catch-up Loop Theory. If you can think of some other good examples, feel free to email them to me (troy at troyangrignon dot com) or leave them below.