RIA Trends: Web Apps and Stores

By Kshitij Sobti | Published on 21 Dec 2010
RIA Trends: Web Apps and Stores

No one needs to be taught how to purchase items in a store, such a concept needs little introduction as it is something we have all done countless times. We have regular stores for purchasing regular goods, and for quite a while we have been seeing an increasing number of online stores where one can purchase a variety of items from household appliances to real estate. Yet purchasing digital "goods" online - applications, games, music etc. from an online store - on a mobile device or even a computer seems like a recent trend.

Surely software of all things is the most appropriate item for any kind of online store. It seems rather odd that one would still need to order a software DVD online when the internet is the best medium to distribute it. Purchasing an application online that gets delivered to your doorstep is akin to going online to send a snail mail.

Google may have started it off by announcing their Google Chrome Store, but the fact is, an online store for online applications just makes too much sense.

However, the internet's biggest charm is that it is a decentralized resource, where content isn't tied to any platform. One of the biggest things to look forward to with web applications is that they would make such applications platform-agnostic. It doesn't matter if you are running a low-power tablet, a mid-range laptop or a high-end workstation computer, everyone is welcome as long as you have a standards compliant browser.

The Google Chrome Web store however is intensely tied to the Google Chrome browser, even though it is as easy to use any of the web applications on any other browser. Google Chrome itself is standards compliant, however there is an artificial restriction in their web store that makes us prevent using their store on another browser.

Mozilla's concept of a decentralized web application store ecosystem on the other hand tries to afford us the same liberties we are used to with traditional stores. You can buy the same products from multiple different stores, and stores compete on the basis of user experience, customer service and satisfaction. In such an ecosystem, Google's Chrome Web Store would be just another web store of many, that would be browser agnostic.

The fact is that even this may not be enough freedom when it comes to web applications.

Most of the web applications that you use today are tied to services, and in some cases cannot be separated from them. For example, GMail is a great web application that is tied to Google's email solution. Now you may use the GMail service with any client you want, but using the GMail web app with other email providers is not directly possible. The same goes for Yahoo! mail, and the plethora of web mail solutions out there.

Similarly, Picasa and Flickr are two services that allow you to store images online, however they also offer services such as sharing, face recognition, tagging etc. However it is not possible to use a different storage provider (such as Amazon S3) with either service if you just want the add-on features.

In the desktop world this would be like each application storing files in its own storage, your one office application cannot access anothers' files, and the only way to open an image managed by Picasa in Photoshop would be to copy it to the clipboard from one and paste it in the other. Not a very pleasant image. If we are to move to the clouds then the internet will have to work better together.

This makes web applications fundamentally different from our desktop applications, and buying web applications is very different from buying desktop applications. Your photo collection, for example, isn't going to suddenly get deleted and disappear if you don't pay for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom every year, yet this could be the case if you don't pay for your online photo management application.

On the other hand, storing data online can give some semblance of security, your data is safe as long as you keep paying for your storage provider. Your desktop hard disk on the other hand could fail at anytime, and the manufacturer's warranty will only get you a hard drive back, not your data. So it is a compromise like any other.

We are also beginning to see web applications that offer merely an application, where the only service aspect is the continual maintenance of the system. The Pixlr image editor, for example, is an excellent RIA that offers image editing features that compare to those available in most desktop applications. Pixlr can simply be launched in your browser without registration or login. The application launches in your browser and lets you open files that from your computer, or from any URL you specify. Additionally, it can connect to some other storage providers if you are willing to create an account on their service. Such an application can be a drop-in replacement for your native desktop application.

We live in a time of absurd inconsistencies. On one hand we have capacities in terabytes in our computer, and are capable of working with high definition videos and images in tens of millions of pixels; on the other, we are relying on online services that aren't compatible with such gluttonous use of data. Transferring all your images and videos to an online storage service such as Flickr or Picasa seems ever more so a lockdown in the choices you have in the future.

The lockdowns are at many levels; at the browser level, where your app store is tied to your browser; or due to the service your opt for. Either way, while it may seem like you have a lot of choices to begin with, it seems like you have fewer choices and less wiggle-room once you settle in.

These are all problems that the current web app and web app store ecosystem needs to solve before we can truly start transitioning our computing to the cloud.

Kshitij Sobti



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