Why Web Apps Will Never Catch On With Consumers

I just got around to reading yesterday’s entry at JoelOnSoftware. Joel made an interesting comment while talking about Firefox:

“Microsoft took over the browser market fair and square by making a better product, but they were so afraid that Web-based applications would eliminate the need for Windows that they locked the IE team in a dark dungeon and they haven’t allowed improvements to IE for several years now. Now Firefox is the better product and there’s a glimmer of hope that one day DHTML will actually improve to the point where web-based applications are just as good as Windows-based applications.”

If that is (or was) truly a concern of Microsoft’s, I’m not sure it’s entirely founded. Now, I think that web-based applications are cool. Very cool. But I can also recognize that the psychology of web apps runs counter to the psychology of the consumer. The consumer does not particularly like to rent; the consumer has a predisposition to buy, or more specifically, to own. The prevailing sentiment is, “if I give you money in exchange for some item, the item is MINE; I now possess it and can do with it what I will, with no further input from the seller”.

Our current software model works this way. You go to your local computer superstore, or log on to Amazon and purchase a copy of, say, MS Office, and in return you get an actual thing – a heavy box with disks and manuals and rebates and coupons inside. It is a thing, an object, and you own it. You can use it for as long as you like (or until a version of Windows comes along that renders it useless; but then again, nobody says you have to upgrade from Windows 95?), and nobody can stop you. With regard to this box of software, you are The King.

Now contrast this with the subscription model that comes with using web-based software. You set up a recurring monthly charge on your credit card with the application service provider. You log in to the provider’s site and use the application to complete some task, right there in your browser. When you are done, you log out and continue surfing ArsTechnica to look for a decent review of a 21″ LCD.

You should have some sense of satisfaction. After all, you completed your task, whether it was writing a letter or making a list or drawing a picture. And it was convenient, too – you got to do it right in your browser, with no worries of version incompatibilities, hardware problems, file corruption, nothing! But you don’t feel satisfied, do you? In fact, you probably feel thoroughly unsatisfied, and somewhat empty inside. Why is that?

It’s because there was no take-away from the experience. You spent your money, you got access to what you needed to complete a task. You don’t actually own anything, and that’s an insecure feeling. What if you lost your job and went broke? If you own a copy of MS Word and can pay your electric bill, you can churn out resumes all day long until you find a new job. But with the subscription model…nothing. In fact, spending money to use a web app seems a little bit like paying to do work. And that doesn’t seem right, now does it?

That may seem a bit hyperbolic, but I think it illustrates the basic psychology behind a consumer’s use of web-based software. Microsoft once wanted to go subscription-based with Office – not even web-based, just subscription-based – and perhaps still does, but they’re smarter than that. The few times that such rumors have hit the Internet, outcry has been fast and unmistakable: “my dollars, my software”.

You may have noticed that I qualified this entry’s title by adding “With Consumers”. If this leads you to believe that I feel businesses are not sensitive to the same consumer psychology as individuals, you are incorrect. However, I will say this: I believe that businesses are (on average) somewhat less sensitive to these concerns. Economies of scale are at work when making purchase decisions for a business that bring elements into the decision – bulk discounts, lower deployment costs, decreased employee theft – that do not exist when making a purchase decision for a single consumer. But businesses are ultimately just groups of people – people who like to actually own something when they spend their money.