More on the Web as Application Platform

A collection of articles surfacing on weblogs coalesced for me this morning. John Gruber’s article, The Location Field Is the New Command Line, is about the rise of the web as a viable application platform. The article builds on Joel Spolsky’s How Microsoft Lost the API War.

Gruber talks about how the web is successful as an application platform despite is weaknesses. This reminded me of Cory Doctorow’s heavily linked (and deservedly so) talk about the ills of digital “rights” management.

Doctorow discusses how media are successful not because they are better at what the old media was good at, but because they are better in some new and different way:

“New media don’t succeed because they’re like the old media, only better: they succeed because they’re worse than the old media at the stuff the old media is good at, and better at the stuff the old media are bad at.”

He goes on to give some examples:

This is the overweening characteristic of every single successful new medium: it is true to itself. The Luther Bible didn’t succeed on the axes that made a hand-copied monk Bible valuable: they were ugly, they weren’t in Church Latin, they weren’t read aloud by someone who could interpret it for his lay audience, they didn’t represent years of devoted-with-a-capital-D labor by someone who had given his life over to God. The thing that made the Luther Bible a success was its scalability: it was more popular because it was more proliferate: all success factors for a new medium pale beside its profligacy. The most successful organisms on earth are those that reproduce the most: bugs and bacteria, nematodes and virii. Reproduction is the best of all survival strategies.

Piano rolls didn’t sound as good as the music of a skilled pianist: but they *scaled better*. Radio lacked the social elements of live performance, but more people could build a crystal set and get it aimed correctly than could pack into even the largest Vaudeville house. MP3s don’t come with liner notes, they aren’t sold to you by a hipper-than-thou record store clerk who can help you make your choice, bad rips and truncated files abound: I once downloaded a twelve-second copy of “Hey Jude” from the original Napster. Yet MP3 is outcompeting the CD. I don’t know what to do with CDs anymore: I get them, and they’re like the especially garment bag they give you at the fancy suit shop: it’s nice and you feel like a goof for throwing it out, but Christ, how many of these things can you usefully own? I can put ten thousand songs on my laptop, but a comparable pile of discs, with liner notes and so forth — that’s a liability: it’s a piece of my monthly storage-locker costs.

Here are the two most important things to know about computers and the Internet:

  1. A computer is a machine for rearranging bits
  2. The Internet is a machine for moving bits from one place to another very cheaply and quickly

Any new medium that takes hold on the Internet and with computers will embrace these two facts, not regret them. A newspaper press is a machine for spitting out cheap and smeary newsprint at speed: if you try to make it output fine art lithos, you’ll get junk. If you try to make it output newspapers, you’ll get the basis for a free society.

And so it is with the Internet. At the heyday of Napster, record execs used to show up at conferences and tell everyone that Napster was doomed because no one wanted lossily compressed MP3s with no liner notes and truncated files and misspelled metadata.

Today we hear ebook publishers tell each other and anyone who’ll listen that the barrier to ebooks is screen resolution. It’s bollocks, and so is the whole sermonette about how nice a book looks on your bookcase and how nice it smells and how easy it is to slip into the tub. These are obvious and untrue things, like the idea that radio will catch on once they figure out how to sell you hotdogs during the intermission, or that movies will really hit their stride when we can figure out how to bring the actors out for an encore when the film’s run out. Or that what the Protestant Reformation really needs is Luther Bibles with facsimile illumination in the margin and a rent-a-priest to read aloud from your personal Word of God.

So it is with web applications. They don’t succeed because they are better at the things traditional were good at (rich UI, etc.). In some ways, there are much worse than traditional applications. Like MP3 vs. CDs, web applications are better in new and different ways.

Ian Bicking has more in what makes web applications good.


12 thoughts on “More on the Web as Application Platform

  1. You have quoted from a portion of the Cory essay on copyright that I can almost accept but I have one question (as opposed to a position) on the MP3 v. CD question as, other than its quantitative success, I have yet to understand why are better in new and different ways. Is it simply the massive portability of the vast number of selections that would take a month to listen through? If I had a position, I would equate them as a medium with Big Macs as food – cheap, readily available and that extra degrees away from the real thing. The reason I ask this is not just oldie oldson priggery as the essay relies heavily on well written (or at least attactive) but, for me, fairly wobbly illustrations to get you from point to point in the argument. Without this point explained, I have a hard time understanding his argument being something other than the unsatisfactory “newness compels”.

  2. The key things with MP3s over CDs is their ease in portability. It’s not so much that you don’t have to “go back to the source” and switch things out after a month (instead of every 72 minutes), it’s that you have much more choice right at your finger tips.

    Also, most people don’t own systems capable of displaying the shortcomings of lossy audio formats (to a degree, of course). If my main form of listening to music is through a pair of $20 headphones, I won’t be able to tell you the difference between a CD or an MP3 produced at a decent bitrate. If you can’t hear it, then you don’t really worry about it.

    LPs have better sound quality than CDs if you can afford a good enough player and keep the LPs in good condition. But most people don’t have the player or can keep them in good enough condition. The same argument can then be applied to MP3 vs. CD.

    (That was sort of rambled together, I hope it’s somewhat coherent and relevant to your question.)

  3. So if it is only a convenience matter proven by market success, I would guess that if I said that was not much of a basis for altering copyright law (as Cory D. argues it does) I’d come across as relevant as Elmer Fud.

  4. Alan, Maybe I am missing something, but I can think of very few less convenient products that win in the marketplace. Very rarely does some one buy something that is a harder to use than what they currently have. Convenience is pretty much always the killer feature.

    Paper bibles are more convenient than Sunday sermons, mp3 are more convenient than CDs. If it makes peoples lives better, maybe we should figure out a way that the market can supply it (and can continue to supply it for some time to come.)

  5. I suppose I am being obtuse but as you might guess I have read the Cory D. essay and I find it extremely unsatisfactory. The MP3 illustration is an example of how he uses an instance of convenience tied with poorer quality in an effort to justify changes to copyright law to diminish. I do not understand the connection between convenience and legal change. I also do not understand the connection between popular convenience combined with loss of quality as “better”. To me that is the popularity of the Big Mac – a clear marketplace winner.

    Look at the other example. Paper Bibles may be more convenient but that was not their break-through. It was the ability to replicate them through the press that was important. Paper bibles existed for centuries before the press printed by hand – very inconvenient. I think it is a poor choice of illustration of the point plus it is not a good illustration of “better” as it fails to address the community of a church as being better than the isolation of the reader. That is not making life better. Cory uses illustrations throughout the essay that have this ill thought out quality and he also uses these illustrations to drive the point he is wanting to make. But they do not connect to that point both because they are unsatisfactory in themselves and because the arguement is not sustained by them.

    The MP3 v. CD and Bible v. sermon illustrations are really tools of rhetoric rather than logic. As a result, the essay is like a political stump speech and speaks to the converted. I do think there is likely a better argument for what he wants to say although the arguments for copyright change often have this quality. This one is just not very convincing.

  6. I am on the converted side and for me the bible illustration works fine. The printed bible is more convenient for it’s purpose, lets say the thursday night reading, while the church sermon is more convenient for it’s purpose, expert teaching and a general community. Different things.

    But I would say the printed bible certainly made the world a better place for a great number of people. All we have to do is look at the numbers. I would say the same for MP3s.

    I know that digital music has completely replaced all other forms for me. I know the DRM has caused problems for me. And I know that I have no pirated music. I personally I would get benefits from being able to purchase MP3s. I also know that right now that probably would bankrupt a few companies critical to the supply chain. So I say we change the law so that I can get what I want, MP3s, and the labels can get what they need, cash.

    The alternative really is that I go without a product that I want to pay for, and that the labels continue to loose money to people on the net that have no qualms about making their lives easier. If everyone but the pirates loose the way the game is played today, maybe we should look at changing the rules.

  7. Cory’s essay makes some smart points, but I cannot for the life of me figure out why he would want to attack the single fastest-spreading piece of consumer electronics kit in history, the DVD. The studios now make more money off this DRMed product than they do off of their movies. One could make an attempt to argue this is in spite of the DRM not because of it, but he doesn’t even try.

  8. I like Cory’s essay, but it just doesn’t apply to web apps for one simple reason: there is no technical reason that real programming languages and rich client apps can’t be distributed as easily as web pages. It just hasn’t happened yet due to standards disagreements. The real question in my mind is if it will happen before web apps are extended to have all the same benefits as traditional programs (code maintainability and a rich UI).

  9. I am with you here Steven

    So is Clayton Christianson the Innovators Dilemma guy. Ford produced a cheaper nasty car compared to the neat expensive hand made ones. Nucor produced cheap and nasty rebar from small local furnaces. Southwest, cheap and cheerful flight. Wal*Mart cheap and easy shopping for rural America – the list goes on. The real innovation is cheap and cheerful. The full application comes later.

    I am working with a large corporation now and we will look at traditional training budgeted at $50 million per annum. With Peer to Peer community based training we might look at less than 500K. I think that they will accept a lot of simplicity if we can pull this off.

    Look at film editing. Now with a G5 and Final cut – you too can edit a real film. The leading Gardening program on the BBC syndicated all around the world is edited in the couple’s cottage in the country in England.

    My sense is that bloat ware will die soon

  10. I think you’re making my point for me.

    What better resembles a model-T?
    – A thick (bloated) application (flash, vb, C# app using lots of shared libraries and standard interchangeable parts)
    – Elegant hand crafted dynamic html – each piece either written from scratch or copy/pasted from someone else’s code.

    Even though thick apps are bloated (as in they result in huge executables), they *ARE* the quick and cheap solution. What’s more, because of interchangeable parts (code reuse), they are much more maintainable as well.

  11. This argument goes a little out of my area of expertise, but in reading the replies one point/opinion stood out to me. Robert Paterson made a comment on how programs like Final Cut are being used to produce TV and indie films and that he believes the days of ‘bloatware’ are numbered.

    My personal take is that the ‘bloatware’ will continue to soldier on with a core demographic of users/consumers and they will take some losses, and the success of the simpler more prolific apps will be becuase it’s accessability will lend itself to being used by a number of new users instead of converting large numbers of existing users.

    Large movie production companies won’t start using Final Cut on a G5 to edit the lastest $100million super duper action/sci-fi movie, but you may get a college student using it to cut together an award winning independant film.

    To go back to the previous analogies used, Model T’s were popular becuase it made automobile travel accessable to a large portion of the population that otherwise never could have owned a car. It didn’t really take so much business away from the luxurious hand made cars (most people rich enough to own a cat before the Model T didn’t switch to Model T’s) as created an new market for itself.

    Again, I am an employee of an architectural firm, (oh and BTW, we won’t be trading in our AutoCAD for a cheaper less intimidating piece of software), so I am only offering my less educated opinion here of software developement… but I think it’s a more balanced guess at the future 😉

  12. Alan, for everyone but Hi-Fi listeners, a high bitrate MP3 is *not* a loss in quality. There is *no* difference to most listeners, apart from a much lower filesize.

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