Written by John Milan and edited by Richard MacManus. John is Senior Software Architect and founder of TeamDirection

The days of purely desktop-based applications are clearly numbered, but so are the days of exclusively web-based apps...

The two elephants of personal computing these days are Microsoft and Google. Microsoft rose to dominance by capturing the desktop. Google is rising to dominance by capturing the web. Both strategies revolve around who can capture your data. Elephants require massive amounts of food to survive, so it's no surprise that Microsoft and Google are eyeing each other's data. Microsoft has started a 'Live' initiative to engage Google on the web. Google has tinkered with productivity apps that might just work offline, to join Microsoft on the desktop. If either Microsoft or Google is successful at grabbing the other's data, the most useful byproduct of their efforts will be new ways to easily move data between the desktop and web. The result of this battle will further blur the lines between purely desktop and exclusively web applications.

But as often happens when elephants trample the landscape, they create new opportunities for smaller, more nimble animals to grow and prosper. As Microsoft and Google narrow their focuses on each other, they will either fail to notice the landscape is changing underfoot, or will be unable to adapt quickly enough. It's not just naive optimism; there's plenty of historical precedent. Just as Ford couldn't build all the world's cars, AT&T all the world's telephones and IBM all the world's computers - neither Microsoft nor Google will be able to write all the world's software. In fact, the very rise of Google demonstrated this to Microsoft. As a result, the consumer and business software markets are poised to open up as never before.

Mozilla: Another Elephant

Can a foundation become an elephant? And not elephant as a pejorative, but as a measure of power - the power to change the environment around you. The Gates Foundation is such an elephant. The Heritage Foundation has certainly had an outsized impact. In the software world, the foundation to keep an eye on is Mozilla. How does a lizard become an elephant? By doing something nobody thought possible, of course. Take on a product that dominates the web experience and is embedded in over 90% of the world's computers, carve a niche for yourself with inspired innovation and market yourself into one of the top ten brands in the world.

Though there may be infinite user interface features to invent, I would like to see Firefox address the area in most distress: data distribution and replication. The browser is uniquely positioned among all applications as the desktop gateway to every existing web application. It's so obvious it seems trivial. It's not. Just as every desktop app needs an OS, every web application needs a browser. Forget standards, pay no attention to partnerships and don't let XML web services fool you - the web browser represents a GREAT opportunity to connect web applications together.

But first the web browser needs a feature. And in the spirit of open source I'm happy to dispense my advice freely: data recognition. Right now the browser excels at data caching, which is how your email pops up on different web pages in any edit box named 'EMail'. It's time for the next step. The browser should start recognizing the concept of email and be able to offer suggestions for fields of similar ilk. It wouldn't even be that hard.

Have you noticed the anti-phishing features included in the latest browser releases? Solving the phishing problem is cool, but the method is even cooler: the browser constantly checks against a server for the latest exploits. What if a browser started keeping rich profiles of sites? And what if Mozilla started defining some common field groups, like 'User Information,' as rich data types? Mozilla could define rich data types and provide canonical lists of field names describing them. A web designer could then tag their forms to match rich types. Perhaps they match Mozilla's canonical names or perhaps they upload a field mapping to a Mozilla server. Much like checking the anti-phishing server, Mozilla could check this server for a site's rich data mappings and syntax turns into semantics.

With its popular browser, penchant for innovation and willingness to extend what the user experience can be, Mozilla has a chance to solidify itself among the giants and lay the groundwork for a real semantic web.

Trumba: A Hyrax

Richard MacManus recently reviewed Jeremy Jaech's latest company, Trumba. Mr. Jaech has enjoyed incredible success with two desktop business applications: PageMaker and Visio. Rather than rest on his laurels, his latest venture seeks to unify calendaring systems. It's an excellent idea - certainly a sweet spot for data distribution and replication issues. If Trumba can pull it off, it will certainly grow and Mr. Jaech will indeed  have a well-deserved hat trick.

However, while the idea is excellent, Trumba has an implementation problem: they have no desktop presence. In order to achieve ubiquity, Trumba is providing calendaring customizations and is pushing standards for web designers. This might work, but what about all the desktop organizers? What about Blackberries, SideKicks and cell phones? And if you're not online, it's impossible to read your current event information at all. Perhaps this is why consumers are still grappling with Trumba. Though the company is well rooted in desktop business apps, they seem a bit mired with a philosophical devotion to a 100% web solution. As a result, though consumers can see the basic problem and Trumba sounds interesting, the solution isn't compelling enough.

I think they need to return to their roots a bit and develop a browser plugin. Something to give them a foothold on the desktop, able to synchronize with mobile devices and, most importantly, synchronize with the most common personal organizers. Start with MS Outlook. Entertain Thunderbird. But by all means make it a one-button-and-done issue for the consumer to note an event and publish it to every relevant device. Perhaps a Google calendar, perhaps a Blackberry or cell phone - most likely all of the above. Remember it's the browser that offers a connection point today. Maybe you can convince everyone to adopt your calendars and your standards tomorrow. But if you make it work today, then you can dictate instead of cajole.

Strangely enough, a company is attempting to do something similar right now. SpanningSync works only for the Mac, but that's never stopped a good idea before.

By happy geographic coincidence, Trumba and my company TeamDirection are both located in Seattle. If I've gotten anything wrong, then I offer to be re-educated in person. Perhaps they have a suggestion or two for my project management solution. Like Trumba, TeamDirection is focusing on connecting tools together - in this case bidirectional synchronizing with MS Project, MindJet MindManager, SharePoint and Groove. I won't bore you with the details here, but I'd be happy to here.

Adobe: The Darkhorse (Darkelephant?)

One company has all the needed pieces on the desktop, but is searching for the right server parts. It's the best software company you've never heard of, even though it has a market capitalization of $22 billion US. It's the company that liked Mr. Jaech's PageMaker so much that they bought it. They were even critical to YouTube's success, yet somehow stayed out of the headlines. Of course the company is Adobe Systems. (Full Disclosure: John Milan is a former Adobe employee and owns some stock.)

Adobe's purchase of Macromedia was also a masterstroke, giving them two ubiquitous desktop applications, PDF and Flash, that derive much of their value by working across the web and across different systems. Adobe is currently touting their Apollo project, which looks like a very promising lure for developers. As they state:

"Apollo is targeted at developers who are currently leveraging web technologies, such as Flash, Flex, HTML, JavaScript and Ajax techniques to build and deploy Rich Internet Applications."

In other words, it's a toolset that anticipates desktop and web convergence. If they can convince enough developers to sign on to their Apollo platform, then Adobe won't need to build any server parts - all those developers will do it for them.

It's an audacious strategy which has been flying mostly under the radar. While Microsoft and Google have been trying to encroach on each other's turf, Adobe has been trying to move the whole playing field. I believe if they can include a few popular mobile devices as well, it just might work. According to Adobe, their HTML rendering engine was chosen because it works on mobile devices, so they're thinking along the same lines.

Conclusion: The Promised Lands

The days of purely desktop-based applications are clearly numbered, but so are the days of exclusively web-based apps. Both Microsoft and Google are racing toward a happy medium. However, they aren't the only players in town, not by a long shot. Both Mozilla and Adobe are well positioned to take advantage of desktop and web convergence. Companies offering solutions that connect desktop and web apps together will get their chance too. Calendaring and project management are two obvious choices, but every productivity app deserves to be re-examined.

Who will the winners be? To borrow a catchphrase, "Just follow the data." The key for success will be how easily data can be identified, distributed and synchronized. Soon enough it will be immaterial where your event or task originated. Instead, what will matter is that your data being everywhere and in sync.