There has been a lot of hoopla over Web-based Office applications lately along with renewed premature obituaries for the PC. With the Google and Sun announcement of a collaboration with OpenOffice.org and Java adding fuel to the fire, the hype surrounding the death of the PC and the webification of the world will reach a feverish pitch. Since there are currently already a hand full of websites that offer web based Office productivity applications to the masses, I'm wondering if all the webification proponents are actually going to drink their own Kool-Aid and ditch their PCs or at least ditch all of their traditional native desktop applications. I'd like to see them do this now or tell us when and under what circumstances will they to do this.
While it's true that many bloggers might use tools like Wordpress to do all of their editing and posting, that isn't exactly the entire Office productivity suite. If we take a look at what's out there for web-based Office applications, they typically address email, word processing, and spreadsheets. The intuitive drag-and-drop features and the rich GUIs we've become accustomed to are either non-existent or sorely lacking in every web application in the world. There is literally nothing that a web-based application can do better than a natively compiled application other than the fact that it can run on multiple operating systems. While OS portability may please the opponents of the Monoculture, it does absolutely nothing for the 90% of the world that runs on the Windows operating systems -- other than take them back to the stone age of computing experience.
Are native desktop applications really so horrible that people are eager to do a wholesale replacement and reduce our entire computing experience to a web browser? I still prefer the richness and responsiveness of a native Win32 application to do all my blog compositions and then I'll cut-paste into Wordpress to publish my work. I'll switch to Linux and OpenOffice.org or even buy a Mac long before I'll touch a glorified dumb terminal. It doesn't matter that I usually have continuous access to the Internet; I appreciate the ability to work offline with zero dependencies on some servers or the routers on the Internet to be responsive. I hate waiting for http round trips for my user interface to respond and I demand that my applications are snappy and responsive.
If we look at two of the most feature-rich web applications in the world like Outlook Webmail 2003 and Scalix Webmail, which recently surpassed Microsoft's web-based offering, both are second class compared to the real Outlook 2003 client. Like all web-based applications, neither Outlook nor Scalix Webmail will work offline and they can't match the richness and responsiveness of the real Outlook client. While it's always handy to be able to get to the corporate mail server from any computer with web connectivity, I've never met a single person who actually prefers the web browser experience over the traditional Outlook client if they have a choice.
The one area that web applications excel over most native applications is that they simply work anywhere with Web connectivity without the need for a VPN. There are even situations when VPN clients don't work because a corporate proxy or firewall isn't compatible or doesn't permit VPN traffic. Now that traditional applications have started tunneling through SSL, coupled with the fact that SSLVPN solutions have almost matured to the level of IPSEC VPN solutions, the connectivity advantage is no longer so compelling. Outlook 2003, for example, can connect directly to a corporate exchange server via SSL using a technology called RPC over HTTP which can go through any proxy server or corporate firewall regardless of a no-VPN policy. Outlook 2003 simply fires up from anywhere on the net and establishes a secure SSL session with the corporate backend Exchange 2003 server in a matter of a few seconds. For those looking for a Microsoft Exchange alternative, Scalix is coming on strong with their Linux-based solution and they're even willing to support SSL tunneling on older versions of Outlook using the Scalix Outlook plug-in.
What seems to happen every time a new technology comes along is that it gets over-hyped to be the answer to all our problems. Web applications offer a decent alternative when the native desktop application isn't available or when it's a quick and dirty simple application, but it is not a replacement. There is a place for web applications but the dependency on the web, the sluggishness, and the primitive user interface shows us that the demise of the PC is nothing more than a dream.
Editor's note: See ZDNet's special report for additional news and views on the Sun-Google partnerhsip.