The author of my favorite desktop application that I'm not using anymore kicks off a discussion of why applications are moving to the Web. Nick Bradbury of NewsGator, author of the FeedDemon RSS aggregator, says it's because people are afraid of installing software on their desktop.
Despite the power and rich UI that desktop applications offer, it's obvious that the move to Web applications is accelerating. For many people, the ability to access their data through any browser clearly outweighs the benefits of desktop software.
However, if you get away from techie circles and speak with mainstream users, you'll find that many of them don't care about the ease of accessing their data. They only need to access their data from one location, so it makes no difference to them whether they can get their email at Starbucks. In fact, some of them don't even like the idea of their data being "out there somewhere."
Yet they're still moving to the Web.
Why is this? There are many reasons, but fear is a big one. Downloading and installing software is scary.
Joey deVilla adds some more reasons on the blog Global Nerdy: He says Web-based applications make collaboration easier, many are free, many are more visually attractive than desktop software, they eliminate update headaches, and they are easier on IT staff.
In the discussion thread to Bradbury's post, "Khoji" says it's not just inexperienced users who are afraid -- experienced users know that a new application might trash their desktop and prove resistant to uninstalling.
I have to disagree somewhat with Khoji -- I find the risk of poorly-written software messing up your system configuration is small -- but if you do happen to mess things up, you're on your own to fix things. If you can't make the fix on your own, and it's your personal machine that's hosed, you have to find an expert friend or relative, or pay a professional, to clean up the mess. And, if you mess up your work machine, you're at risk of being slapped for violating company policy.
Zane Ridling says the trend to Web-based software is countered by users' privacy concerns about storing confidential data on the Internet. However, he says, developers are moving to Web 2.0 because it provides a better revenue stream -- instead of licensing software once, developers can continue to get revenue from software, either through ads or user fees.
Dwight Silverman disagrees with the premise -- he says that users are plenty comfortable installing software, and that's why there's so much spyware out there.
I think Bradbury underestimates the usefulness of having your applications and data available from multiple locations. Even I, a work-from-home practitioner of immobile computing, recently made the leap to using two machines regularly, and that made Web-based applications more attractive.
When I talk to mainstream users, it's not so much that they're scared of installing desktop applications -- they just don't do it. You might say they're in the habit of not doing it. And who can blame them? It's an interruption to the normal flow of using the computer. You have to download the software, shut your other applications down, and step through a bunch of menus that are confusing and intimidating to the novice. (OK, so I guess fear is a factor after all.) Some people, like me, are compulsive about trying out new software, and are quite comfortable installing and uninstalling applications. But for most people, it's an unnatural act.
Many corporate IT shops have their machines locked down, so users can't install unapproved software. That's another factor driving the trend toward Web-based software.
I find it personally ironic that Bradbury, in particular, kicked off this discussion. His application FeedDemon was, for the longest time, my favorite RSS reader, which meant it was one of the applications I used most. However, NewsGator bought out Bradbury's company, and eventually incorporated the best features of FeedDemon into its Web-based news aggregator. I switched to that. The primary reason: FeedDemon is built on Microsoft Internet Explorer, and Firefox integration was kind of a kludge. On the other hand, NewsGator worked inside of any browser. Later, I switched to another Web-based RSS aggregator, Google Reader. I haven't used FeedDemon in so long that I'm thinking of uninstalling it from my system.