The future is rich!

I’ve had the dubious pleasure of writing this month’s column using what many claim is the future of application delivery, Google Docs & Spreadsheets (Google Docs for short). Clever though this software undoubtedly is, there’s no getting away from the fact that I had more control over formatting in MultiMate (anyone remember that?) back in 1989 than I do now in Google Docs. Maybe I’m deliberately missing the point: for me, Google Docs should be seen as more a preview of future Rich Internet Applications than as a serious replacement for Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.

The future is rich!

Google Docs has the obvious advantage over desktop office packages that it costs nothing and requires almost no installation – anyone with a Google login can have it running in seconds, although they may spend much longer trying (and failing) to discover basic word-processing functions such as styles or tables. But, while Google Docs leaves out most word- processing and spreadsheet functions, it gains in accessibility from any PC and in its collaborative features – at any point during the creation of a document you can invite collaborators (if they have Google accounts) to edit that document live, even while you’re still working on it. There’s the obvious risk of parties overwriting each other’s work, so it’s best restricted to the editing of existing documents, but it could be used as a rudimentary whiteboard or even a primitive instant messaging application. The point isn’t that such uses are revolutionary, but that they indicate the direction in which traditional applications can move once they’re delivered online.

Google Docs is a good example of Software as a Service (SaaS), the slightly poncey name for software delivered by an Application Service Provider (some claim there’s a philosophical difference between desktop ASP software running from a server via a basic HTML interface, and SaaS applications that are designed from the get-go to work online).

Personally, I think SaaS is more of a market-driven development than some moment of epiphany, but however you regard them applications such as Google Docs, BaseCamp and Elementool (a bug-tracking service) will be grabbing increasing chunks of our time and money over the coming years. Real progress happens whenever a web application developer tackles the difficult task of softening the disadvantages of delivery down a narrow pipe via an HTML container by creative thinking about how the application can make the most of its online environment – Google Docs may be a pretty poor word processor, but its collaborative features will be genuinely useful in many scenarios. Given that you can download the file in Word format, I can see Google Docs being used as a means to capture the words, and then Word or OpenOffice being used to pretty them up. One day, I’m sure we’ll get both in one application, and that application will be online.

Flex-ible Flash

That raises the question of what tools to use to create these next-generation web applications and, if Adobe has its way, that means Flex. In my September column, I called Flex an overpriced niche product aimed purely at enterprise developers, but reader Stephen Barton sent me an email to defend it, and I’ll have to admit that I was wrong, at least in part. It’s true that Flex’s top-of-the-line spec comes with a six-figure price tag, but for version 2 Adobe introduced a price structure more accessible to SMEs and individual developers. Remember that Flex was created by Macromedia, whose plans for the product stopped well short of market dominance, which is perhaps why the company was swallowed by the more ambitious Adobe. To Adobe’s credit, it’s recognised Flex’s potential, and it deserves a closer look than I’ve given it so far.

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