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Industrial revolution

Web developers set to stake claim on computer desktop with new tools

April 30, 2007

Making software isn't easy. Making good software is even harder. Making good software that everyone can and will use, no matter what kind of computer they have, is a virtual Holy Grail that has eluded even the giants of the industry.

But that may be about to change as a range of technologies are poised to break the shackles of compatibility with only a single operating system, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows or Apple Inc.'s Mac OS, and open the desktop realm to a community of developers once confined to the internet.

That's the future of software, according to University of Waterloo computer science professor Srinivasan Keshav. Software that bridges the divide between the desktop and the internet while drawing on the strengths of both environments is being written in the face of the shift to mobility, he said.

"Computing is moving centralized," Keshav said, using the metaphor of a cloud to describe the internet. "That's the future. There's lots of interaction at the edge of the network — the desktop — but the heavy lifting is done in the cloud."

He pointed out that about 500 computer server centres around the world handle most of the planet's data traffic, a fact that foreshadowed the rise of desktop applications tied to the web.

"Back in 2002 you could see Google Docs was going to happen," he said, referring to the internet search giant's suite of productivity software.

Internet and software giants such as Google and Microsoft have begun to recognize that as workers increasingly become mobile, independence from a specific computer platform is where the future rests. As a result, they have begun to release web-based software that runs inside a browser.

However, a generation of smaller, independent developers are looking to a range of tools that could level the playing field against the internet and software giants, and grant the upstarts the chance to produce competitive software.

One technology generating a lot of attention recently is a set of software by Adobe Inc. codenamed Apollo. In March, the company released an early version of the free development tools and downloadable environment on which applications will run.

Programs work without internet connection

Web developers, in particular, have already seized upon it, since it lets them create software using the range of Adobe's internet technologies, such as Flash, as well as commonly used web code and languages such as HTML and Java, rather than having to learn a new programming language. Instead, they can create programs that run on a computer's desktop with or without an internet connection — something most of them had previously been unable to do.

"There are two main limitations to the work when you are developing things online," said Evan Jones, a Toronto-based new media producer with independent studio Stitch Media.

"One is you have to have a connection to the internet, and your [application's ability to work] breaks when your connection breaks. With Apollo, when your laptop is offline, you have the ability to keep things working."

That's a major leap for web developers whose work could previously only be used with a persistent internet connection, said Jones, a co-organizer of the grassroots Flash In The Can new media conference, which focuses on Adobe technology.

Competition will hinder growth

Another problem that web developers face is that for security reasons — preventing malicious attacks such as virus infections or worse — most internet-based software doesn't have the ability to gain open access to a computer's file system, he said. That inherently limits the capabilities and features of web software, something that he expects Apollo to change.

"Now you can get access to the file system, move files around, you can create a new file on a computer … which will open a whole lot of new possibilities."

Examples of desktop software already available for Apollo include:

  • A media player by music recommendations service Finetune.com that can play songs on a computer hard drive as well as streaming tracks from Finetune that match the user's tastes.
  • Scrapbooking software by Scrapblog.
  • A scheduling and time management tool called Gtimer.

All of them were converted from web-only software within days, according to Adobe's Mike Downey, senior product manage for Apollo.

However, independent developers aren't the only ones looking for a way onto the desktop, he said.

eBay incorporating Apollo software

Internet auction giant eBay will soon release its own Apollo desktop software that lets people manage their auctions to a degree that had not previously been possible within a web browser, he said. Dubbed Project San Dimas, the new software is the only major project that Adobe can discuss at the moment.

But those kinds of projects and their capabilities aren't limited to Apollo, whose full version is to be available for Windows and Mac by the end of the year, and for the Linux operating system in 2008, according to an industry analyst.

Dave Senf of market research firm IDC Canada says Apollo is only one of a range of competing technologies available to developers seeking to bridge the internet and desktop.

"Microsoft has Silverlight … there's also SVG, then there's XUL put forward by the Mozilla folks who brought you the Firefox web browser, there's Java. … But Flash by far has the dominant position for web designers," Senf said.

Competition will hinder growth

The competition among the various offerings for cross-platform software frameworks will initially hinder the rapid growth of the new generation of programs, Senf said.

"There's going to be a lot of competition initially, at least for the next 18 months or so. Microsoft and Adobe and the many Java supports as well, they'll offer competing solutions and toolsets that will slow the adoption [of cross-platform software] than if they'd agreed on a standard."

But that rivalry will eventually evaporate, with competitors supporting one another's formats, Senf predicts: "Five years out, you'll see tools supporting the Apollo framework and the same from Microsoft."

When that happens, "we'll leave the boring flat HTML world behind and see richer applications" that perform multiple functions.

Jones thinks it may happen sooner than later. At the Flash In The Can conference in Toronto April 22 to 24, developers were eager to learn about using Apollo, he said.

"We had unbelievable interest," Jones said. "That room was absolutely jammed. We had people sitting on the floor, standing in the aisles — they were overflowing out the door and into the halls."

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