misery of Web applications
If you think people complain a lot about Windows, just wait until
Web applications become more widespread -- you ain't seen nothing
yet. Web applications will be about ten times as frustrating as
Windows apps, and there will be no one person, like Bill Gates,
to blame it on.
There are a lot of promising new Web applications, such as Bitlocker
(a Web-based database), EditThisPage.com (a Web-based tool for editing
and managing Web sites) and ThinkFree (a Web-based productivity
suite that's compatible with Microsoft Office). A lot of development
is starting to happen in this field -- for some examples, see Dave
Winer's recent report from PC Forum .
I've been using various Web-based applications for quite awhile:
My Yahoo for email and contact management, Blogger to update the
Tweney.com Weblog, and Paytrust to manage and pay my bills. I've
used several bank and financial institution Web sites for managing
my money, and I've sampled Desktop.com for productivity applications.
But just when I start getting used to the convenience of a Web
application, something happens to make me realize I'm not quite
ready to give up my hard drive. The application's site is suddenly
unavailable, or it takes longer than expected to display a page
-- say, ten or fifteen seconds. Or my Internet connection goes down.
Or I lose data that I've spent the past fifteen minutes entering
into an HTML form when my browser crashes -- and there's no backup,
because I haven't yet uploaded the data to the server.
What's more, none of these Web applications yet duplicate the full
range of features in any of my desktop applications. In fact, most
don't even duplicate the 10% of the features that I actually use.
That's why, for instance, I'm still using Quicken to keep an eye
on both Paytrust and my bank accounts. The financial Web sites just
don't offer the tracking, budgeting, and charting tools I want.
Like other Web applications, these programs are in their infancy.
The Web application suite I return to most often is Yahoo's. Yahoo
has done a lot of things right. Their tools provide a lot of functions
I appreciate, such as (relatively) easy synchronization with my
Palm calendar and address book, and flexible options for collecting
mail from my various POP3 mailboxes around the Internet. In other
words, the developers recognize the importance of integration with
Moreover, I haven't had to install much on my local PC to be able
to use the Yahoo applications. And the site is generally very responsive
-- not many graphics, clearly powerful servers, and lots of bandwidth
to handle their millions of users.
But Yahoo's applications can, and do, fall victim to transient
traffic delays on the Internet, browser problems, or local interruptions
of service. Even a slight delay can make a big difference when you're
using a Web application, as opposed to passively reading Web pages.
As usability expert Jakob Nielsen has written, response time of
a tenth of a second or faster is necessary for users to feel that
a computer system is responding instantaneously -- the productivity
and usability ideal [2,3].
One second is the maximum acceptable response time if you don't
want to interrupt the user's train of thought. That's a typical
delay in Microsoft Office when opening or saving a file, or doing
a search-and-replace operation. It's noticeable, but doesn't get
in the way of your work.
With a delay of ten seconds or longer, Nielsen tells us, the user's
attention will wander to other things. Or, I might add, they will
become frustrated and angry. Unfortunately, delays of ten seconds
or more are fairly typical online. It's no big deal when you're
reading the news, but being forced to wait that long is downright
infuriating when you're trying to get some work done.
I'm noticeably less productive, and more stressed, when working
in this mode. I can only imagine the backlash that will occur when
large numbers of consumers begin to use Web applications and run
into these frustrating limitations.
Frankly, there's only so much that Web application designers can
do to improve the situation. They can beef up their own hardware,
optimize their software, and design HTML pages that load quickly
in users' browsers.
A lot of the problem, however, is beyond the ability of application
developers to control. The infrastructure of the public Internet
just isn't ready to support Web applications at the level of performance
consumers and business customers will demand. The Net's backbones
are already filling up with multimedia streams. Popular servers
are too easily swamped during peak traffic times (as users of E*Trade
and eBay discover all too often). Most importantly, end-users' connections
to the Net are still too slow and unreliable. Even at DSL or cable
modem speeds, connections often break or bog down.
So I'm still carrying a laptop when I travel. That way, even if
I can't get online, I can still get something done -- be it writing,
catching up on my email, or just playing Solitaire.
It will be a long time before the Internet is both ubiquitous and
reliable enough to support Solitaire.
Times: The Three Important Limits
 The Need