This is a point/counterpoint argument, with John Milan taking the position that online desktop apps are better, while Richard MacManus argues for offline web apps. Let us know what you think, in the comments.
Point (John Milan)
John Milan: ReadWriteWeb is currently running a poll asking which web apps should also work offline. Shouldn't we be asking the equally valid corollary as well: which desktop applications would you like to see work online?
Fundamentally, what is the difference between a web app that works offline and a desktop app that works online? Could it be that the web and desktop application communities have accidentally merged and are violently agreeing what the next version of productivity applications will look like? Or are there still intrinsic differences between web and desktop, regardless of how well they work offline or on?
The obvious differentiators are the Web's simple delivery and the desktop's rich UI experience. Online/Offline has been the elephant in the room and Zimbra's announcement means that the elephant has finally been recognized. In fact, while they framed it as a web app that works offline, a more accurate portrayal is a basic desktop app that works very well online - an acknowledgement that this architecture is better able to meet users needs. For example, by introducing a desktop component, Zimbra will now be able to attach more than 1 email at a time to an 'online' email message.
The 'web only application' architecture has run its course. The simple web apps that early adopters have been willing to put up with, are transforming as mainstream requirements dictate a healthy desktop presence. Regardless of its origin, the future is desktop applications taking better advantage of online features and bringing richer offline (and online!) experiences.
Counterpoint (Richard MacManus)
Richard: John's argument is basically what Microsoft and Adobe are aiming to achieve - a world where 'rich' desktop apps have online functionality. Let me take the position of two of their main competitors, Google and Yahoo. They would argue that the browser is still the 'lowest common denominator' for applications - i.e. the browser is where the largest user base is (by a very long shot), the browser is where the most popular Web activity search is carried out, and the browser is the most user-friendly and hassle-free environment for applications. There's no download required and users can access their data on any computer or device.
So who's right? Microsoft or Google? Adobe or Yahoo? Well, since nobody has 'won' the desktop app vs browser app argument definitively yet, we're now attempting to tackle it from a different angle: is it better to have an offline web app, or online desktop app? I hate to say it, but I think it all comes down to the user base again. The Web browser is the primary Web platform and so, more often than not, it is both more convenient and more usable to run a web app than it is to download a desktop app. It's horses for courses too (of course). For example with word processing, I generally want to use a desktop app. But for email, I want a browser-based app. In fact for most applications involving Internet connectivity, I prefer browser-based apps - so that I have most of my apps running in the browser and accessible whichever computer I happen to be on (and I run two in my home, for starters - one at my desk and one in the lounge).
Which brings me to my pi?®ce de r?©sistance: today my Gmail account was down and out for a good 6 hours. Yikes! I wasn't happy, as I had neglected to do backups and so the majority of my work was in that Gmail account. Now if only I'd had offline access to my Gmail.... then while I was waiting for my current email messages to arrive, I could have at least dug out yesterday's emails and did that work.
To sum up, I think offline web app functionality is more important than online desktop functionality. Too many of my day-to-day applications run in the browser now, so offline access to those web apps is critical to my business.
Counterpoint (John Milan)
John: Two things stand out for me in Richard's response: 'lowest common denominator' and, of course, Richard's Gmail experience (I guess after 3 years it still is a Beta). Furthermore, if the browser is the 'OS' for web apps, then the largest user base comparison would be with Windows - and it's hard to imagine Windows lagging too far behind in this race. Or if Adobe is successful with Apollo, its user base could (theoretically) be equivalent to the browser's user base by virtue of being cross-platform.
To Richard's point of being mobile, he is absolutely correct - a web browser has a significant advantage over the the installation of desktop apps. This isn't totally hassle-free, however. Over the course of a day, you've probably downloaded more bytes over your pipes to service a web application than if you downloaded and installed a desktop. Furthermore, all these bytes do not mean a richer user experience, just one that is more transient. But as far as mobility is concerned, this is an absolute advantage, as long as your work is also isolated.
This would be the other elephant in the room. A mobile toolset may be nice for business, but at some point integration will be required for business systems. For example, my company is using a certain web application for sales force management. It is very comprehensive, but I currently have an open support issue regarding integration with my critical business infrastructure. If it was a desktop application with a nice scripting language, we could have done it in-house. Instead, it is a web app and we have been blocked for over two weeks now - and we're powerless to move things faster. Unless a business is willing to put everything online - and given the value of the data and the cost of an outage, that is an extremely unlikely proposition - then web applications will in fact be forced to stay in a supporting role instead of becoming dominant.
Which is a very odd argument to be making, and shows just how gray and smudged the web app vs. desktop app battle lines have become. Richard has more or less made the argument that web apps are superior for more autonomous workers, because of their superior mobility. I have just made the argument that desktop apps are better for businesses, because it's the only way groups can coordinate their activities with critical business infrastructure. The web for the individual and the desktop for groups?
Perhaps mobile devices can clean up this messy affair.