Monday, August 27, 2007

The Wealth of Software

One of the hot topics in 2007, much like it was in 1997, is the rich versus thin client issue: will the future of software lay purely on the cloud, or will rich fat desktop apps suffer a revival? This old debate was rekindled earlier this year by the announcements of Adobe AIR, Microsoft Silverlight and Sun JavaFX; all fighting for the so-called Rich Internet Apps (RIA) market. I guess the neologism is marginally better that the previous buzzword, AJAX, which still makes me cringe a little bit. In fact, I blame Jesse James Garrett for the worsening of my case of bruxism, but I'm digressing...

What brought me to this weary debate is the historical perspective brought by Herb Sutter in this recent post. He argued that we are seeing a manifestation of a cycle where computing moves periodically between the center and the edges, a movement driven by an imbalance between resources:
"More specifically, it's the industry constantly rebalancing the mix of several key technology factors, notably:
  • computation capacity available on the edge (from motes and phones through to laptops and desktops) and in the center (from small and large servers through to local and global datacenters)
  • communication bandwidth, latency, cost, availability, and reliability"
While this seems reasonable enough, I think there is an element missing: he scarcely mentions the role of the applications that run on those systems. The article presents a purely supply-side analysis of the computing marketplace, to put it in "economic" terms. To illustrate the importance of the demand-side, I expanded Herb's chronology table with important application classes of each epoch:


The Center

The Edge




Military calculations.


Walk-up mainframes

Huge business batch processing.


Terminals and time-sharing

Big business batch processing



Scientific computation, maybe? I don’t know…


Microcomputers, personal computers

Spreadsheets, desktop publishing.


File and print servers

Departmental or Small-Business DB apps. (think video rental service software)


Client/Server, server tier

Client/Server, middle tier

OLTP (for instance, bank account management)





Web servers

Web portals (Yahoo!, Excite!, …)


ActiveX, JavaScript
PDA phone

Web based apps. (Hotmail, many ASP/JSP/PHP db apps).





Flash, AJAX

Fancy web apps (Flickr, Google Maps)


Web services
Data centers

Google Data, DabbleDB?


Google Gears
Adobe AIR

Now what?

Now, what do we fill in that last cell? What are the killer apps of the RIA platforms? There is no clear answer, but I see basically two niches that can be a good fit for the space: apps that handle audiovisual media (youtube, picnik, etc.) and apps that require rich modes of interaction (Google Earth). Its important to bear in mind that media intensive operations are expensive all around, from server storage space to quality digital video cameras for the users. Also, in many cases AJAXian alternatives exist (see PX8N or any other Web2.0 reflective-logoed startup in techcrunch). Regarding the other niche, applications using novel user interaction features, it seems cool in theory, but apart from a handful of HCI journals there is very little action in this space nowadays. And that's probably good, because most attempts at UI innovation fall flat on the user's faces, as DHH eloquently argues in this podcast. All in all, skepticism is healthy as usual, but I don't see the door closed shut to a richer software landscape.


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