Fellow ZDNet blogger Ryan Stewart wrote a recent piece that noted Google's non-search ventures haven't met with the same level of success as their flagship search product. He goes on to hypothesize that the problem is that full blown web applications aren't going to be able to pull consumers away from desktop applications.
I am unconvinced that the average user will embrace web applications delivered in a browser. Web 2.0 is a great thing, but despite the buzz surrounding many of these applications, a wider, less tech-savvy user base hasn't materialized. If Google wants to deliver applications to main stream users, they need to adopt a Rich Internet Application strategy. They need to use their talent and their web knowledge to build applications that bridge the gap between web and desktop. People want experience, and they want to access information wherever they are, regardless of an internet connection.
George Ou has made similar arguments, asking why anyone would use the Outlook Web Access client when they could hook up Outlook to use HTTP over RPC and use the full-fledged desktop client. That's certainly my experience, as I only use the Outlook Web Access version when I'm stuck using a fee-based Internet terminal at the airport or at a hotel PC.
Web development was always sold as "good enough." Google Search got ahead not because it pushed the web interface envelope, but because of an elegant and simple user interface that did a suprisingly good job of finding the results people cared about (in fact, "simple" is a lesson I think Microsoft could most learn from Google). A "good enough" user interface is more than enough for something like search, where all you really need is a text box into which to enter search terms and a "Search" button.
In other words, web applications have advantages. Those advantages, however, start to get outweighed by the costs as you move into the web version of a "fat client."
This is an increasing problem, now that "good enough" simply isn't "good enough" anymore. People now expect highly-interactive client side applications. Unfortunately, web applications only have a limited ability to offer that. This means desktop rich clients will (almost) always be preferred, when available, though web clients with really hairy AJAX programming may give them a run for their money.
It seems to me that Microsoft has spent a lot of time rethinking rich clients, and developed a framework that will appeal to a lot of developers. It certainly appealed to me long before I became a Microsoft employee (I attended the 2003 PDC while an employee at the WHO in Geneva, Switzerland).
Whether Microsoft's web-inspired desktop development framework (one that moves beyond the web into easy-to-code vector graphics, 3D effects, and timeline animations) is going to attract developers remains to be seen. We won't have to wait long to find out, however. Vista will be here Real Soon Now (a January consumer release is actually starting to seem plausible according to Mary Jo Foley, back from the "Directions on Microsoft" hinterlands), and around that time we'll have the RTM release of .NET Framework 3.0 to enable support for WPF/WCF technologies on Windows XP. If people start to write a bunch of web-aware Rich Client applications that beat the pants off web applications, we'll know if Microsoft's rich client technologies has any effect on the web / desktop application balance of power.
Such a rich client framework would cause ideological consternation for Google given that it is tied to Windows. Others, however, won't be so ideologically constrained, and if others start offering these types of web-aware rich client applications in credible numbers (and if they prove popular), it's may become hard for a public company to stick to its guns.
Yahoo would love to push back against Google. Would web-aware rich clients be the way to do it?