Why the Desktop is Never Going Away

By now we’ve all read Joel Spolsky’s rant on how Microsoft has lost the API war and it’s too late and desktop development is dead and web development rules all and everything is going to h-e-double-hockey-sticks in a handbasket. I’m not even going to bother linking to it – you all have either read it, or know where to find it.

Now that Joel has the industry all abuzz with his prognostications of doom for desktop applications, I would like to tell you that the desktop is not going anywhere.

Pointe the first: I am not anti-web. I think web development is a very cool technology, and I can absolutely see the benefits for businesses, although I am convinced that web apps will never catch on with consumers. So as you read this, remember – this is not an anti-web rant. One platform need not die in order for the other to live.

Pointe the second: As you already know by now, NewsGator got funded. Who says VCs are not funding Windows apps anymore?

Pointe the third: Desktop = Power. Nobody – and I mean NOBODY – like the high latency of your typical web app. They simply do not. Sure, Gmail has managed a reasonably snappy interface, but it is still nothing like having “real” software living on your computer. Users like horsepower. Users like ownership. Users like systems that react as quickly as one can click the mouse. Period. And even ASP.NET, as cool as it is, cannot give that to them.

Pointe the Fourth: Users do not trust computers in general; the relative level of trust is inversely related to how physically close the computer is. By far, the number one objection my clients raise to web apps is this: what if my internet connection/network goes down? Even with the economies of scale inherent in hosted apps, many businesses think them too risky to use. Web apps that are hosted on the company’s own intranet do much better in the trust equation, but even then the thought is frightening to some companies. Sure, you can talk about how you’re going to build fail-safes into their system so that they can keep working under those circumstances, blah blah blah, but by then one of two things has happened – a) the client’s eyes have glazed over, or b) they’re thinking “so you’re going to make the project more expensive just to safeguard against something that should never happen I the first place?” and once you get to that point, you have lost. When an application actually lives on the user’s machine, the user feels as though he has a little bit of control over the destiny of his workday.

Pointe the fifth: Consumers still buy lots and lots of software. As dicey a proposition some businesses might consider web apps, the general corporate consensus is that it is OK to use them. But as always consumer behavior is different. Going back to NewsGator, can you imagine an app like that being a web app? How about PhotoShop? CorelDraw? MS Word? WinAmp? There’s no way.

To be fair, as long as I am pointing out the shortcomings of web apps, I should also say that the desktop does need to do some work. Although it enjoys the advantages of psychology and power, it needs to improve in the arenas that the web truly excels at – deployment and portability.

I was talking with Richard Caetano about this just the other day, and we agreed that although the problems of desktop-app deployment can be cured (or at least mitigated well enough to please people), portability is the real problem that the desktop must overcome to remain a viable platform for application usage. How DO you use an app that is installed on your computer, when you are not on your computer? This is the questions that nobody seems to have an answer for yet. Perhaps a next-generation method of hoteling could allow a corporate user to quickly pull an image of his usual desktop onto a “blank slate” PC in a satellite office? I’m not the most qualified person to theorize on this matter, but it is clear that in the war between those who favor the desktop and those who favor the web, the desktop needs to improve its portability at least as much as the web needs to improve its performance.

This is quite the incoherent ramble, and I’m not really saying anything others have not said before. So allow me to wrap up by saying this:

Predictions of the desktop’s demise in the application market are premature and overblown. With Whidbey, it is said that Microsoft is betting the company on the desktop. Well, if Bill is willing to bet the company on the desktop then I am willing to bet my career on the desktop. But the beauty of the situation – and the point of my wide-eyed, frothing-at-the-mouth rant – is that nobody HAS to bet anything on any one platform; the universe of potential applications is large enough to support both desktop and web models. To suggest otherwise is to look at the glass as half empty.