Home Webified Desktop Apps vs Browser-based Apps

Webified Desktop Apps vs Browser-based Apps

Written by Ebrahim Ezzy and edited by Richard
MacManus. Ebrahim runs a search engine called Qube – which is a webified desktop app.
Richard’s Note: In some ways Ebrahim’s conclusions in this article contradict
my own views, but I think that makes it even more appropriate for Read/WriteWeb to
publish. I’m looking forward to a robust discussion by readers in the comments

More and more applications these days are being webifiedmeaning “made to operate on the Web
using a browser or made to function in a similar manner.” This is because the Internet is
capable of significantly augmenting human interaction, with its decentralized system
of ubiquitous data accessibility.

WebOS, the remote desktop

We’ve already seen a wealth of desktop-replicated web applications in the
web 2.0 space – office
, calenders, task management.
A webtop (derived from ‘desktop’) pushes that replication to its limit. Also known as a WebOS, it is basically a virtual desktop on the web. It is a simple, less bloated, less
featured and remotely accessible operating environment that runs in a browser. It
delivers a rich desktop-like experience, coupled with various built-in

Popularized (in the Web 2.0 era) by Goowy
among others, these products
typically feature wallpapers, windows, toolbars, folders, work & entertainment tools,
abilities like drag and drop – and other pseudo-useful features that have been
available on desktops forever.

The concept is expected to appeal those who require seamless connectivity, even
on-the-go. Common uses include file-sharing, a communication tool for families and
small workgroups, office tasks (private word documents, calendar and agenda),
Entertainment (Games, Chat, Music), as an FTP alternative, etc. Richard has been writing
about WebOS companies for a while on ZDNet – and his recent post about EyeOS shows
how WebOS products are being used by people.

Startups in this space

Goowy provides email
(2GB), messenger, calendar, address book, News/RSS manager, file sharing & storage
(1GB), games, and widgets (which they call mini). Developed mostly in Flash,
Goowy also offers hosted
 with added functionalities, for businesses. [Ed: Ryan Stewart wrote
a great overview of
on Read/WriteWeb in March]

DesktopTwo (also available in Spanish) provides email, address book,
file storage and sharing (1GB), IM, blog, music player and a website editor in a nicely
organized user-interface. It requires Flash, Acrobat Reader, and popup windows to
function correctly. It’s a nice name (DesktopTwo = Desktop 2.0, I
guess) and my personal favorite.

Glide Effortless is a
web-suite that handles media files – documents, photos, audio, and video – and also
provides a handy word processor and calendar.

XIN is still in beta,
but is evolving into a full-featured WebOS. In Richard’s original review of XIN,
he noted that XIN aims to be an entirely Web-based OS and as such is a full development

YouOS has perhaps the most
recognition of all the WebOS products – and high ideals too. The YouOS developers
describe their product as “a liberation of software from hardware”. According to Richard’s article, YouOS wants the
OS to be no longer a user’s primary concern – it’s your data and your apps that you only
need to concern yourself with.

EyeOS (Open-Source) was developed in Spain and currently boasts
53,500 users in the main public server. In addition there are around 400 active
servers installed by users. More in Richard’s review.

Great Idea, Questionable Value

The Internet has changed how we access and use information. With a computer and a
high-speed connection, no matter where you are, your world travels with you. Of course,
while that might sound eminently desirable – the reality is sometimes not as

WebOS is a great idea, but in my opinion it has questionable value. It can
be fun, exciting, entertaining and even convenient for some – but being
as efficient, flexible and productive as a desktop is practically impossible. The
majority of these applications are almost essentially superfluous,
emphasizing novelty over substance.

Downsides of a WebOS 

  • Works at the mercy of the network and the server load.
  • While the many enabling capabilities of network-based storage architectures are of
    substantial value – issues of authentication, access control, and security/privacy of the
    stored data remain. Are you going to let someone else handle your data? Would you trust a
    startup to protect your critical data? [Ed: for an interesting side argument, see this discussion of
    IBM’s SoulPad from a year ago]
  • The privacy, control, reliability and performance issues prevent the WebOS from
    being an alternative to the ever-more-affordable and easy-to-use desktop.
  • WebOS requires a fast and reliable (if not flawless) connection to
    work correctly.
  • Inability to operate peripheral devices.
  • Web applications rely on open source infrastructure and an array
    of technologies and formats – and these are constantly changing, often with no
    regard for being backwards compatible.

As Fred Oliveira of WeBreakStuff nicely put

“…after service outsourcing and personal outsourcing, we’re seeing a new age
of web-service outsourcing. One with no regulations – only expectations and
. Everything is based on trust, and trust sometimes fails.

And the problem here is that even with web-services as a liability,
there’s no fallback mechanism, no alternative route, and no
“competitor service” that can be plugged into an app in the timely
like web 2.0 applications require.

This proves that purely mash-up based applications have small foundations, and
like a house with no foundations, they may fail to resist, should the unexpected

(bold emphasis mine)

I should note that without a leap of faith, no idea or innovation can get off the
ground. However, several other factors make web applications like WebOS less secure, less
productive and unreliable.

Improve the desktop instead

I rely on various web applications to create documents, presentations,
spreadsheets; share images, videos, data; manage and organize tasks, projects and life. But I still believe the future of computing
isn’t entirely web-based
. It’s necessary to have the desktop as the pivotal point,
because the power of the desktop is important for a rich user experience – and will be,
for a very long time to come.

What we require then are smart, webified, internet deployable
desktop applications – that can reliably store data, serve it robustly, and interact
with both remote and local databases. This connected model will ensure that applications
will function in both online and offline states – for a seamless, uninterrupted

Companies that are vying to be the prime desktop development platform include
Microsoft, Adobe and (increasingly) Google. Ryan Stewart has a good post summarizing the main desktop
platforms. See also Techworld.com on
Windows Vista and virtualisation.

Webified Desktop Applications

There are many examples of desktop applications that benefit from the connectivity and
mobility of web-based data:

  • Windows Live Writer
    provides a powerful replacement for web-based
  • Word 2007 will also allow blogging from Open
  • Utilizing the power of desktop and a remotely hosted environment, SecondLife provides a unique type of gameplay that
    would be impossible on the desktop alone.
  • The NYTimes
     “enhances the on-screen reading experience” by providing functionalities
    in a desktop application that weren’t achievable through a web-based interface
    (see also the R/WW
  • iTunes integrates with its online music store and
    generates an impressive revenue stream.
  • Using Excel
    , a spreadsheet author will be able to save their spreadsheet to a SharePoint
    (Microsoft’s web-based collaboration tool) document library and give other users
    browser-based access to the server-calculated version of that spreadsheet.

Other examples include Webaroo (offline search),
PicasaWeb (Desktop Photo organizer and
uploader), Omnidrive (data storage), Omniscope (data filtering and manipulation),
Qube (browserless, desktop search),
TouchStone (information management – private
alpha) etc.

As the Web becomes increasingly interconnected and applications continue to blur the
distinction between the desktop and web, we should expect to see more applications
that allow Web/desktop synchronization. This will happen due to the increasing
development of web services that enable apps to work equally well across web and
desktop clients.


I will continue to use WebOS and other web-based productivity applications, just to
appease the Web 2.0 spirit within me. But the fact remains that
Webified (or “connected“) desktop
applications are noticeably superior, offering almost all the benefits of web
applications without any limitations. Indeed, I think the two environments are not
even directly comparable. 

However, in the end desktop and web are just small
outposts in a much larger world of information creation, collaboration,
distribution, management, and presentation. What ultimately matters is
productivity, scalability and

If (and it’s a big ‘if’) the web will render the desktop obsolete someday,
then I’ll be more inclined to accept the new norm of web apps and services.

UPDATE: We’ve published a poll, for you to tell us which type of app you prefer – desktop or browser-based.

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