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The misery of Web applications
published 29 March 2000

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 [1].

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 other applications.

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.

[1] Touch of grey

[2] Response Times: The Three Important Limits

[3] The Need for Speed




~ Back issues ~

The coming shakeout: Peapod, CDNow in trouble; jumping on the business-to-business bandwagon; software patents revisited (21 March 2000).

Closing the gap: Jeff Bezos changes his mind on software patents; Webvan gears up; bridging the digital divide?; Levinson on buyer pooling (9 March 2000).

Massive marketplaces: The Big Three automakers -- the biggest companies in the world -- are building an online trading hub; Amazon.com gets a ridiculous patent (2.29.2000).

The whole dang archive...


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