The Revenge Of The Desktop App

Bret Taylor had a chart that was going the wrong way.

The CEO of Quip, a startup whose namesake app promised to redefine word processing for the mobile era, had seen a curious trend: Desktop usage of Quip, which was minimal at first, had been steadily rising for the past two years. Just this month, it crossed 50 percent.


That’s the exact opposite of the trend the rest of the world is seeing, where what Simon Khalaf, then CEO of Flurry and now a top executive at Yahoo, dubbed the “mobile moment“—the crossover point where mobile usage exceeds desktop—has already happened.

Some of that had to do with product improvements Taylor’s team had made, like the introduction of spreadsheets, a classic desktop activity. But it also had to do with Quip’s changing user base.

“It’s being driven by our business users,” Taylor told me. “When we launched spreadsheets in October, we had about 10,000 companies using Quip. Now we have 30,000 companies using Quip. Our business usage has been growing exponentially.”

While the world of work is changing rapidly, most of us surf that wave of change seated in front of a flat surface, on which rests a machine with a keyboard. (Perhaps we stand, or even walk, but the point remains.)

Web Apps Go Offline

Quip had offered a Web app from the beginning, but it had its limits—among them speed, and the ability to work offline. 

Eight years ago, when he was at Google, Taylor had helped introduce Google Gears, a set of tools which promised to untether Web apps from Internet connections. That didn’t work out well.

“The whole offline Web app thing has been so many false promises,” said Tyalor. “You have to jump through so many hoops to just get one document offline.”

Things are different now, among them technologies like React and LevelDB which Quip used to build its new native apps for Mac OS X and Windows. The native apps render documents in the same way the Web app does now—the only question is whether the data is coming from a database in the cloud, or a local one. Native desktop apps also let Quip take advantage of relatively new operating-system features like notifications.

The desktop apps cache all Quip documents locally, and then use the same synchronization engine from its mobile apps to keep documents up to date, even when your laptop is offline or dealing with a slow, flaky Internet connection, like on airplane Wi-Fi or at conferences with overloaded networks.

I’ve been testing the Mac version of Quip for the past week, and the experience is nearly identical to the Web app. The only thing I miss is the document’s URL, which I’m used to grabbing from the browser tab to share a document.

The Desktop Is Back

Quip is far from alone in embracing the desktop. Slack, which launched with a native Mac app, added a Windows app in March. And Cotap introduced desktop versions of its workplace-chat software last fall.

When I first chatted with Cotap CEO Jim Patterson about his app, he told me his team didn’t use Cotap much during the day—in fact, they switched to Atlassian’s HipChat when they were at their desks. 

His original concept for Cotap—a WhatsApp for workers in industries like retail and construction, who rarely if ever saw a desk—shifted over time, as different businesses embraced it.

“It was always inevitable” that Cotap would embrace the desktop, Patterson told me this week. “When you use a service, you always want it to be available on all your devices. You don’t want to take your phone out.”

Cotap found itself going up against iMessage, Apple’s chat service which works across Macs, iPads, and iPhones, Patterson said. Cotap, which also works on Android phones and Windows desktops, promises a cross-platform version of that experience.

In embracing the desktop, Patterson argues, Cotap maintained a mobile-first design.

“I wanted to preserve that mobileness,” he said. “We didn’t make it look like a chat window.”

So Cotap doesn’t have classic features of desktop chat apps, like presence indicators, which discourage people from trying to send you a message if you’re not online. The assumption—as with mobile text messaging—is that you’re always reachable, and you’ll respond when you can.

The interface also encourages short messages, rather than longwinded replies which might overwhelm someone who’s reading them on Cotap’s mobile app.

They Don’t Do Windows

It’s interesting to consider which other apps might go desktop next—and which mobile innovations they’ll embrace. Just how mobile an app is depends on what it does. For Quip, document creation just feels like a sit-down activity, while Cotap is recognizing the fluidity of work from desktop to mobile. 

The only thing that may be holding people back is a lack of developers skilled in building native apps, particularly Windows.

“In Silicon Valley, it’s not a skill you see so much anymore,” says Taylor. “Windows development hasn’t been in vogue around San Francisco for quite a while.”

Quip ended up training a few developers on Windows tools, with help from Microsoft’s developer-relations team, whom Taylor praised.

Will the next great app launch across platforms?  As the lines between smartphones, tablets, and desktops blur, these questions are getting harder than just calling yourself “mobile-first” and declaring victory.

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