Prolog

As I’ve confessed here before, I have the programming skills of a dazed amoeba. If the future of software development was left in my hands, the most impressive application you could look forward to would be one involving the phrase 10 PRINT “HELLO” 20 GOTO 10.

Prolog

So I was a little surprised when I became hooked by Ian Wrigley’s column this month, which focuses on how life is becoming much easier for developers who create web applications. He makes his points far more eloquently than I ever could, but allow me to oversimplify: the advent of high-quality JavaScript toolkits heralds a new generation of fast, responsive web apps that will seriously threaten their desktop brethren. And Ian goes on to talk in detail about exactly how to use these toolkits.

But the real point of Ian’s column is something even bigger: the impact of cloud computing. Now I’m not yet a True Believer when it comes to the cloud-computing-will-take-over-the-world theory. People aren’t going to suddenly forsake their cosy Windows/OS X environment for the comparatively basic world of a generic OS with a web browser sitting on top, with all their data held on a cluster of servers hovering somewhere over the mid-Atlantic. But we will see a gradual switch to web apps when they offer a clear advantage over desktop-based programs. In fact, we’re already seeing that switch taking place.

Advocates could, no doubt, reel off a long list of benefits, but for me it boils down to one word: sharing. The most compelling reason to switch to Google Docs over the truly excellent Microsoft Office 2007 is if you want to share documents. Indeed, we use it as a business tool at PC Pro – when planning a feature that requires input from lots of people, bearing in mind our IT department hasn’t implemented Groove and Office Live is still too flaky, it makes no sense to create a Word document. You chuck it onto a shared document somewhere in the great Google cloud.

From this point on, it becomes a far more interesting piece of work. The ability to collaborate live – that is, to see what other people are typing, to send them abusive instant messages via the built-in Google Talk window – brings fresh life to a document. It’s teamwork in the truest sense.

This ability to share is what makes services such as Flickr so enjoyable, but it’s easy to exaggerate the importance of such things in terms of the world’s global computing population. According to Gartner research published in June, there are more than a billion computers in use today. The number of registered Flickr users is around 30 million.

Remember that viewing photos is the most common activity people perform on their computers, if you discount the amorphous blob that is “web browsing”. If the figures are that low relative to the world’s population for an excellent, populist service such as Flickr, what chance for any other web app?

That said, over the past few years my computer usage has changed beyond compare. Despite the fact I’m often heard cursing Facebook as a slow, annoying and tedious entity, I visit it every day. Not to update my status (which has remained blank for several months now, due to the fact that writing “Tim is wondering why everyone else has nothing better to do with their lives than tell other people what they’re doing with their lives” might offend) but to play Scrabble.

Ten years ago, I’d have been playing Championship Manager; on my own, in a small room, cup of slowly cooling coffee by my side. Generally, I emerged in a foul mood as Wycombe Wanderers were on the brink of relegation and I’d been fired. Last night, I played a game of Scrabble against a Lebanese student and then a chatty lady from the marginally less exotic Reading. It was a social event. We exchanged mindless banter. I closed my laptop with a small smile playing across my lips. (Okay, some slight poetic licence there, but you get my drift.)

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