Online Applications: Nice, but Not Earth-Shattering

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The program that revitalized my interest in application software that works over the Internet is Writely — a nice online word processing system.

It is not only powerful, but it doesn't exhibit online character. By that, I mean it is not slow to respond and sluggish to use.

It can create DOC, HTML, and other files, and can import and export various formats. If anything, you'd think you were using a trimmed-down version of Microsoft Word.

Is Writely good? Yes. Should Microsoft be worried? Hardly.

In the late 1990s there were a slew of attempts to bring the online application into the mainstream. Microsoft perceived these as genuine threats. Scott McNealy at Sun Microsystems was one of their biggest promoters, figuring all these apps would use Java to operate.

In fact, a number of interesting online apps did appear, including Microsoft Outlook–style programs, complicated calculators, and various utilities such as antivirus scanners, many of which still operate today in conjunction with shrink-wrapped products.

During that era, we did not have the bandwidth for a lot of these apps. The few that worked well online had no way of making money and were actually developed by bloated companies that could not afford to sustain them.

Today's companies are small and lean, and sustainability isn't the problem; success is the problem. Success means the need to scale, and scaling is the new problem.

Scaling can be expensive. What happens when you go from 100 users a day to 10 million? Problems arise.

If there is an eventual problem with Writely, it may be the problem with scalability and the overall stability of the Web itself.

I emphasize stability since my own Web site,, was down recently due to unknown problems.

Unknown problems are all too common nowadays. The popular Web site was down all day Sunday for unknown reasons.

Some of these outages are due to DNS attacks by jerks, some due to hardware failure and many happen for "unknown reasons."

This is less of a problem with incredibly large systems like Google with its thousands of servers, but I suspect that sometime in the not-too-distant future, Google will have some major mishap too.

When you combine scalability problems (and expense) with the normal attacks and unknown problems, it puts us back to 1999 when everything looked good on paper, but found ways to break anyway.

This is why I have never been convinced that a 100 percent online world will ever exist, as envisioned by some.

It's like paved roads. I do not care where you go — you will find a dirt road someplace.

Not everything is paved. And yes, there are fewer dirt roads than there were in 1920, but they are still around.

And paved roads do fail. They collapse and become unusable. Then what do you do? Sometimes you have to go around on a dirt road to get to where you are going.

The question that comes up when considering shrink-wrapped versus online applications is: Which is the paved road and which is the dirt road in the analogy? Is it possible that the shrink-wrapped software is the paved road and the online applications represent the dirt road?

Perhaps if we changed this analogy and pronounced shrink-wrapped apps a railroad track and online apps a paved road, it might make a little more sense. Then again, the online application could be the railroad track. It's impossible to tell.

Whatever the case, it's apparent that these two methods for delivering an application will coexist for as long as imaginable.

I'm writing this column, for example, using Word 2003. I'm not using Writely.

But I could just as easily use Writely, and my editors would see no difference.

If I put together a new machine and forget to load Word, I can always use Writely in a pinch. Or if I borrow someone's computer and they use some offbeat word processor, then I can use Writely without worrying about learning anything new.

Kids at school can use Writely. More importantly, if Microsoft decides to stiff me by overpricing Word or charging by the month to use it, I can use Writely then too.

Note all the wording I've chosen there. It implies that Writely is a backup solution.

The point at which Microsoft would get worried is when users say, "If the Net goes down, or there is a problem with my connection, I can then go back to using Word."

When Microsoft people hear that, that's when they should get worried. The only application that has achieved that kind of status is e-mail where you can say, "Well, if my e-mail stops working, I can always use the Post Office."

Even so, the U.S. Postal Service was hardly bankrupted by the e-mail phenomenon. There are still certain things you cannot send by e-mail, such as packages.

So what we may begin to witness are high-quality, usable online apps that will take their rightful place in the world of computing, next to shrink-wrapped software.

And that rightful place, by definition, does not mean the end of shrink-wrapped software any time soon.

What do you think? Tell me in the forum.

Discuss this article in the forums.

Go off-topic with John C. Dvorak here.

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