All You Need is Web

Mammoth proprietary operating systems like Windows, Linux and Mac OS are so old school. It’s time to toss them into the dustbin of obscure defunct technology.

In the future, your files and favourite software will be available for you to use at whatever computer, smart phone, handheld video game or iPod you happen to be looking at, thanks to the new web.

Pretty much the same as the old web, “Web 2.0” is a popular new approach that focuses on how people use the medium, rather than how companies want us to use it. Web 2.0 embraces the concept of open standards. This means the web operates on a system of community, rather than corporate, principles.

One of the primary tenets of Web 2.0 is the concept that the web is a service-based, rather than commodity-based, environment. This represents a shift from the old-web consumer model, to a much more interactive and capable one that sees people actually using the web to contribute and be productive.

From a Web 2.0 perspective, the web is an operating platform, just like Windows.

The new web offers users the ability to eschew Windows (or Mac or Linux, for that matter) as an operating platform. Instead, the web itself is the platform. Software is not downloaded or installed, it’s simply used in a web environment.

This takes the emphasis of using a computer from the metaphorical “desktop” and puts it on the “webtop”.

While much of Web 2.0 is nascent and theoretical already there are several web-based word processing applications that demonstrate its potential.

One of the best is WriteBoard from 37signals.

In a sense, WriteBoard is your basic, every day word processing application, but it runs in a web browser. The difference comes in how WriteBoard adopts the inherent benefits of it platform.

Ever try to manage a single Word document that’s being written and edited in a workgroup? Maintaining control of revisions and additions is a truly painful experience.

WriteBoard harnesses the power of the web to naturally enable collaborative writing.

Another interesting web-based word processing application is thinkfree Office, which offers a full suite of web-based productivity applications. In a nutshell, thinkfree Office is Microsoft Office on the web, available anywhere to anyone for nothing.

Both of these solutions are in their infancy, but they indicate a key direction in the future of software: away from the desktop.

Instead of being stuck to a single machine to use a particular application or get your files, any device with web access anywhere can be used.

More interestingly, the licensing model and fee system for web platform software is completely different. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars for software you use once or twice a month, you’d either pay a small subscription fee or an even smaller per-use charge.

Another nice benefit to this model of software delivery and use is that there would rarely be landmark, earth-shattering full-version upgrades that would require all users to correspondingly upgrade their brain every few years.

Instead, new features and functionality would be delivered incrementally, in baby-steps. The new capabilities would segue into popular usage models and be adopted by users more organically.

There are plenty of indirect benefits to this approach to software publication and use, as well. Primary among them, to my mind, are the environmental ones. With fewer physical goods being produced that’s a lot less fossil fuel extraction and toxic waste production just for the purposes of packaging, disc manufacturing, and international shipping.

An interesting point to make here is that the concept of files starts to blur with web applications. The documents you compose in WriteBoard or OpenOffice are contained as data within your account on the web site.

They are exportable to various file formats, but it means that while you’re working on a document, it’s available from whatever computer you use, wherever it is. (No more digging around behind a PC, trying to stick your flash drive into an open USB port just so you can take work home for the evening.)

We are at a watershed moment in terms of how we use software and what we use.

The only barrier to widespread adoption of a true Web 2.0 is user attitude towards technology. So many of us have sworn financial and intellectual allegiance to a particular type of computer and its related suite of software that to embrace the fact that all was for naught is a tough pill to swallow.

Too often, the truth hurts. But the most difficult decisions are usually the most beneficial. Just ask any two-year old.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, February 24, 2006.

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