Many of us have been headed in this direction for a while. In our July 2010 InformationWeek Analytics Web Application Development Survey, 74% of 341 business technology pros responsible for the use or purchase of Web application development platforms say they already use the Internet to deliver core internal applications to employees, and 65% say Web apps are core to their businesses. It's no coincidence that we've seen a boom in software-as-a-service offerings and exponential growth of social networks in tandem with improved standards support in Web browsers.
Things are pretty good, and they're about to get better. HTML 5 will let us deliver more powerful applications to browsers, not only on PCs but on many of the modern mobile platforms so beloved by end users, including the iPhone and Android devices. And since these applications are delivered over the Web, developers can cut out the middlemen--controlled application stores and markets--and go directly to customers and clients.
As standards-based technologies advance, vendor application platforms are also evolving. It's a matter of survival. Adobe (with Flash and Air) and Microsoft (with Silverlight) are laser focused on staying at least a step ahead of the standards-based options in features and capabilities.
Businesses need to manage this transition just right--don't slip off the bleeding edge, but also don't fall too far behind in terms of your applications' capabilities. Standing still isn't an option. For an increasing number of customers and business partners, if an application doesn't run on the Web, it might as well not exist. And the design and interface expectations for these Web applications are a lot higher than they used to be.
The State (And Future State) Of Web Applications
Some businesses are already taking advantage of technologies such as HTML 5, Adobe Air, and Microsoft Silverlight. From interactive dashboards in enterprise SaaS applications like Salesforce.com to innovative HTML 5 applications like Google Voice that can run on mobile devices, including the iPhone, examples of cutting-edge Web development are easy to find. But if you're not at that point, that doesn't necessarily mean you're behind: In our survey, we asked respondents how focused their businesses are on HTML 5. Only 22% say they're very interested and following developments closely; 35% are interested, and 38% are somewhat interested. Just 3% say they're not at all interested in HTML 5. That's a hearty endorsement given that the standard isn't even formalized yet, and likely won't be for at least a year.
Similarly, when it comes to tool usage, respondents' businesses are sticking to what they know, but also looking ahead and hedging their bets by choosing tools that have the ability to work with the next generation of technologies. In our survey, the overwhelming top choice for development environment was Microsoft's Visual Studio (69% adoption), followed by Eclipse and standard text editors such as Notepad and Vi (40% each). Rounding out the top four was Adobe Creative Studio (33%).
One respondent says his retail company still writes all its own code, including its shopping cart, in text editors to run on Linux Web servers. "We know precisely what happens with every single line of code, and with security becoming an ever-greater problem, we like being completely in charge of our code," he says. "But the future is changing, and I have absolutely no idea where we are going. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' is running out of time."
Of course, if you're a developer or you work with Web developers, you know that in most cases the real-world development environment is some combination of tools, perhaps Eclipse for code editing and Creative Studio for design and media work. Or maybe Visual Studio is used in conjunction with Microsoft's Expression suite. What this tells us is that, as is the case in many other areas of technology adoption, most businesses are taking a go-slow approach, sticking with the Web application technologies that they know and understand while preparing for the next generation. But we also think that businesses are prepared to move much more quickly to the cutting edge in Web application development than they might in other technology areas.
What To Keep In Mind
First, now that the browser wars are back and fiercer than ever, fidelity to Web standards has become a very big deal. From e-mail to word processing to sales management to HR to business intelligence to analytics and reporting, you name it, you can generally find a highly capable Web-based option. But any business that takes this full-on Web application approach must ensure their applications adhere to standards. Among our survey respondents, the most desired feature, by far, in a Web application development system is that applications work on multiple browsers. For a long time, this preference worked in the favor of vendors of rich Internet applications. If you needed a rich, desktop-like Web application to work across systems and browsers, your best bet was to build it in something like Flash, which has high penetration among Web users. But the growth of standards-based options like HTML 5 and Ajax has made it possible to, if not write once and run everywhere, at least come close.
Second, many tasks still either require a desktop OS or work better there. Even most of the open Web proponents agree on this--a major feature of HTML 5 and RIAs is the ability to run a Web application as a full desktop app separate from the browser. Another argument against the Web as über OS is the mobile environment. At least for now, the trend on mobile devices is away from a browser-, and even a Web-centric, model.
Near term, all sides will co-exist. We'll see some examples of fully Web-based operating systems like Google's Chrome OS, but for the most part, businesses will rely on a mix of Web and desktop applications. In many cases, the lines will blur, with desktop applications that often access the Web and browser-based applications that can tie more directly to system-based data and resources.
Finally, security is a major concern. And, as is typical with new technologies, it's not usually the first thing people are talking about. The reach of many of these new technologies goes well beyond that of conventional Web applications--as if that amount of reach wasn't dangerous enough. With older Web apps, developers and users had to be concerned about where an application touched sensitive data on the Web and if the underlying platform (browser, runtime, operating system) was susceptible to bugs or attacks through bad code. But new technologies like HTML 5 and the latest RIAs go beyond this. They can actually reach right into a user's system and store and access data. So far, most of the players seem to be going in the right direction in terms of making sure these technologies stay sandboxed so they can't affect other areas, but everyone will need to stay vigilant.
Still, there's a lot to be excited about for the future of Web applications--whole new areas of opportunity and growth could open up. In conjunction with the emergence of underlying technologies such as the semantic Web, next-generation Web applications will be able to sift through data and information as if the entire Web were a structured database. And innovative developers will be able to create new types of applications that combine the best features of desktop and Web. Given the ability for many of these technologies to work equally well on mobile devices, applications could break the boundaries that have traditionally left products and services stuck in device prisons and enable them to serve clients and customers no matter where they are. Maybe it won't be a Web operating system. But it may end up being something even better.