By Richard Waters
Working online is about to get a lot more satisfying. Thanks to a new wave of internet-based technology, using online applications such as word processors or more complex tools will no longer be a slow and off-putting experience.
That, at least, is the view of Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, who last month predicted a coming boom in online applications. From one perspective, his enthusiasm is hardly surprising: he has pinpointed this area as Google’s next big market and has plenty of reason to talk up the prospects.
Yet his comments also highlight advances that are bringing rapid changes to many online experiences – even though some internet developers warn that not all the results will be welcomed by workers.
One of these developments is the evolution of the internet browsers themselves. Though their look has changed little, the technical guts of browsers have turned them into more robust platforms capable of supporting better experiences. Mr Schmidt attributes this to the arrival of greater competition for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer in the shape of the Firefox and Safari browsers.
Jason Fried, founder of 37signals, maker of a popular online application called Basecamp, says that as a result, technologies have become “a lot more standardised” among browsers, making it easier to create applications that run on all of them.
Dean Hachamovitch, general manager for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, disputes that point. The basic technology standards that govern today’s browsers were set a decade ago, he says: if better applications are being built inside browsers, it is simply because developers have had more time to work out how to exploit the technology better.
He adds that “Ajax”, the package of technologies used to add elements to a Web page without having to reload the whole page, has been in browsers for years. Ajax is the source of some of the biggest recent advances in browser-based applications.
A second force behind change has been the rapid development of “plug-ins” to extend the capabilities of browsers, particularly when it comes to so-called “rich media” applications that use video. Like Adobe’s Flash player, which was first used to render text and graphics but has since become a common tool for viewing video over the Web, these pieces of software are advancing far faster than browsers themselves, which are held back by a need to work with all websites.
Microsoft recently jumped into this game with Silverlight, its new presentation technology that runs in any browser – a break from Microsoft tradition.
The plug-ins are set to become the vehicles for many other new capabilities to be added to Web-based applications. Adobe, for instance, is using the Flash player to distribute its new Air software, which makes it possible to view some parts of applications while not connected to the internet. According to David Wadhwani, an engineer at Adobe, future additions will include a voice-over-internet service component, making it possible to add voice calling to applications.
This race to create new Web-based experiences through plug-ins is not universally welcomed among developers. The software tools that developers use to build these experiences are still relatively new, says Mr Fried. That leads to applications that launch slowly and are of variable quality, he claims.
The third element driving the evolution of online applications is a blurring of the differences between online and offline experiences. This is partly prompted by an attempt to let people use elements of their internet-based applications when not connected to the internet. Google, for instance, is testing a browser extension called Gears that adds this capability.
Over the next year, browsers themselves will come with support for Web-based applications when offline, says Brendan Eich of Mozilla, the open-source organisation that created Firefox.
A parallel effort is under way to create desktop applications that can be fed by real-time data from the internet. An Ebay application, for instance, lets frequent sellers organise their inventory when offline, then uploads the information and feeds in the latest auction results when connected to the internet.
Some argue these developments are moving faster than users really want. Mr Fried at 37signals says they are a product of the competitive race among technology companies, not a response to customers’ needs. “I think that to say you should work everywhere is a sad notion,” he says. “You should work at the office, or at home.”
Eventually, internet access will extend everywhere, turning all applications into “live” services – but for now, he says, enjoy the freedom while you still can.