What if the web browser comes second?

The web has the largest reach, and is the front to most mass-market software projects – but have you noticed that even the newest web browsers still can’t do some really basic things?  I think that developers who focus only on the web browser are skirting round some great ideas just to avoid that old-fashioned, native software development.

What can you do in a browser?  Video, some basic games, a word processors, endless to-do lists; most of what you could do in the 1980s but without having to wait to load anything from a casette tape, and not worrying as much about how you were going to save your work.  That’s quite good, that’s a bit of an improvement (from the 80s).

Most advances in the 90s haven’t been implemented very well by web browsers yet, and so lots of software developers live without them.  Here are some things that my Acorn A3000 withcould do in about 1993, compared to web-based software now:

  • multitasking – Chrome and Firefox multitask about as well as in 1993, i.e. just fine until one program (tab) goes crazy, and all my programs (tabs) freeze up.  At least I only need to restart my web browser when that happens, and not the whole computer.
  • 3D graphics – we have WebGL! The linked demos worked on my bleeding-edge browser.  For a bit.  Then the browser froze and the tabs crashed.  Nobody has done as ambitious or exciting a 3D game on the web as Star Fighter 3000 (that’s not to say Chrome can’t render 3D graphics, but nobody has chanced their arm on a whole game – yet).
  • multiple programming languages – pick any one you like, as long as it compiles to Javascript! Google have NativeClient but it’s not a sure bet to succeed yet. Or you can run your own code on your server, and only have to do the “fast” bits in Javascript, which is pretty ungainly.
  • complex creative tools – if you want to lay out pages for print, or compose music, or draw complicated diagrams and multi-stage artwork, and have these programs work together to produce a finished product between them the Acorn still wins hands-down on quality and depth of software.  Even cut & paste between Google Docs is fraught; even when you use it in Chrome.

I’m 90% certain the web will be the way to go, in the long run. All this stuff is being worked on, reinvented.  But in the mean time software developers need to consider looking beyond the web.  Maybe the web browser can come second to a native application, not first?

By thinking about the actual computers people use, and not the wobbly Hypercard clone that sits on top of most of them, there’s still masses to be done. There’s rich, brilliant services to be delivered that haven’t even been invented yet because of the perceived difficulty of writing “native” software.  But look at companies who roll their sleeves up and got on with it:

  • Dropbox is making a killing on their file sharing service, which is delivered through a native client on stodgy desktop PCs and Macs.  That can’t work without little hooks all over a user’s PC, but they need those hooks to make the magic folder work. There’s no other way.  Off the back of this peerless integration, they effectively become a hosting company, photo sharing service and a data synchronisation API for programmers.
  • Skype‘s VoIP software and network have not been copied by anything on the web, at least not as well. Again, look at the necessary integration – webcams, subtle notifications, nice snappy interface – none of these things can be done cleanly in a web browser.
  • Mozy (and others) install backup software on your computer and slurp off every file so they can give it back to you when you lose your PC. Web browsers don’t let their downloaded programs near your local files, let alone allowing them to create shadow volumes or filesystem wizardry.

Windows & Mac specific knowledge is scarce compared to knowledge of PHP, HTML and Javascript.  But if you have an idea that can only function with some desktop integration, native software is still the only way. There are cross-platform toolkits, languages, and build tools. Sure you have to test a lot more. And learn a lot more. But that’s the price of your software being able to do a lot more.

While development for mobile phones is big business if you’re selling anything “social”, the laptop & desktop computer is still where any truly creative and complex art is produced. Those creatives with massive screens, massive drives and fast connections want the best software; while they’re relying on the web browser to deliver to them, they’re often being sold short. There are still big opportunities outside of the web browser.