LinuxUser Column 15

Do you remember Application Service Providers? Those people we were all going to rent software from about 4 or 5 years ago? What ever happened to them and their marketing hype? Not much at the time but today we’re using them all the time. We are? Yes, folks. Every web application including LinkedIn, GMail, Writely and Google Calendar is a piece of software running off a server. Through a subscription or advertising we’re paying to use that software as a service, at no point do we ever own or a have an indefinite license to use that software.

The result is that, potentially, web applications can be more restrictive and less free than any non-free desktop software you care to imagine. For my sins somehow or other I still own a Microsoft Word 6.0 license and if I really wanted to keep running it, I could. (I have no idea if WindowsXP would run it but I’ve got nasty old Windows 3.1 on disks somewhere…) But if a web service like Flickr or eBay changes their price plan you either need to stump up the difference or stop using their services. There’s no ownership of the software whatsoever. Some of these providers, like Flickr, are at least very clear that you own your own data such as photos and so make it easy for you to take your stuff with you should you choose to stop paying those monthlies.

Those regular fees are, in many ways, what this (attempted) whole paradigm shift is about. Anybody in business loves regular, predictable payments from their clients. But for the software business regular money is like the holy grail. Why? Because normally software companies run on no income until they release their package, then there’s a huge surge of revenues which trickle back down to near nothing until the next version is ready. It’s hard to manage cash flow and it ends up putting ridiculous pressures on the development process. My first company operated in this way, we had to when shipping floppy disks was the only way. But the Internet allows for an easy way to collect regular fees for software that is updated constantly, as often as daily.

I certainly don’t think this is a massive conspiracy in the works, it is just the inevitable logic of business pressures and technology coming together. Nevertheless there are important implications for open source… As I’ve mentioned in a previous column, I have a theory that this new wave of web 2.0 applications could be a novel way to extract revenues from customised open source software. With no software distributed there’s no need to reveal the source under the terms of the GPL. So open source applications are being successfully leveraged for profit without the community benefit of source code availability. This is an important point of principle in its own right but what about the everyday experience for users? What is this brave new world of web applications like to use?

They’re ok. I’m sure you’ve played with them too. They all need to make trade-offs between the benefits the network brings over the richness of the experience. Being web-based allows for new uses such as social networking, sharing documents and connecting diaries. But being online also means we need to have all these applications squeezed down the still narrow pipes to our computers. This brings along with it many potential points of failure and inevitable latency in the user experience.

Here’s a case study you can try for yourselves at home… You can easily compare Google’s Calendar system with Outlook on Windows, Evolution on Linux or iCal which comes bundled with every Mac. Forgive me readers but I’m a Mac user so I’m going to use iCal for this… Let’s start the comparison then. Google Calendar and iCal offer very similar levels of functionality but one is online and the other is desktop-based. Yes, you can access Google Calendar from any web browser (well Firefox or Internet Explorer) but picking dates, modifying events and general everyday tasks are that much clunkier than iCal. iCal is fast, rich and can be quickly synchronised with my Blackberry. This isn’t a calendaring app shoot-out, but an example to highlight that desktop applications still have much to offer us. Their speed, availability with or without the Internet and usability make desktop applications, in my opinion, the only sensible option for everyday use.

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I find my computer and its hard drive to be dramatically more reliable than my Internet connection (especially since I got the gift of a free upgrade to 8Mbit ADSL, but that nightmare is a whole other story). Given current trends including the vast amount of old cabling still in houses and streets around the world, the Internet isn’t going to be getting much more reliable any day soon. So it makes sense to keep your everyday data local using the Internet as a conduit for synchronisation and backup whenever possible. So my advice is enjoy the Internet but treat web applications with a healthy bit of caution.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit http://www.linuxuser.co.uk

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