The other day, I was sitting watching the The Money Programme on my newly installed Windows Vista Media Center, which is a huge improvement over the XP version (by which I mean it works, and has stayed working for more than a couple of days). This particular edition was all about Microsoft and the UK launch of Vista, and I embarrassed my viewing companions with schoolboy cries of “Been there!” and “Know him/her!” Despite my interruptions, it was interesting to see behind the scenes of such a major launch, although I’ll confess that the “wow” catchphrase the ad agency had come up with escaped me completely until this programme pointed it out. Surprised friends told me it was plastered all over websites as banner adverts, so my ability to tune out banners must have reached almost Jedi levels.
The programme made the point that this might be the last big operating system launch, as in future such upgrades will be done via downloading rather than buying a shrinkwrapped product from your favourite (or otherwise) computer retailer, which set me to thinking about the possible future of computing. Regular readers of this column will know I’ve been enthusing about the variety of web applications that are springing up, and such apps run on servers and use a web browser to provide their user interface, while trying to behave as far as possible like a traditional PC desktop application. This is achieved by rendering small separate areas on the web page, rather than the standard HTML technique of redrawing the whole page after every user confirmation with a blank screen while the refreshed page downloads. Such web applications aren’t just cool, quirky applications; many are refined tools that can be used to do real work, as demonstrated by the excellent Google Apps, which offers users a word processor, spreadsheet and several other functions.
The clever bit about this technology is that these applications use the browser for a user interface and the server for all the back-end processing, with no new programs being installed on the user’s machine. So if all future applications were developed this way, a typical office PC would need nothing more than a web browser installed locally to let the user do all their work. The corresponding operating system on the user’s workstation could be simple, just what’s required to run the browser, with no need for a fancy search system like the one Vista boasts because the server will take care of all that. It will be many years before we see graphics-heavy programs like Photoshop appearing in this web app form, but for a lot of day-to-day office tasks such applications could offer a different solution that would run on very lightweight, low-spec devices. For people like Paul “Road Warrior” Ockenden, they can be a real boon when away from the office, but could such a solution be satisfactory in an average office environment?
Why not? The main problem I see to taking this route is what would happen if the internet connection went down. Perhaps everyone would take some quality time and relax with their work colleagues, but if that’s a bit utopian then a broken or slow internet connection could be worked around by using a proxy server that the users connect to and which itself connects to the internet. We’ve had proxy servers around for a long time, traditionally used to fetch web pages from the internet the first time each user on the local network requests them, then store the pages and images locally, so the next user who requests the same page will get the local cached copy (unless the proxy detects that the remote page has changed). A lot of larger organisations and many ISPs use such technology to take the load off their internet connection.