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Macs, PCs and the Failure of the Web App
June 29, 2010 - 9:54pm

Two years ago I would have bet that the Mac/PC divide would have lost its salience by now. I thought that Web applications and RIA's (rich internet applications such as Adobe AIR) would have once and for all supplanted the client OS. That future has failed to come to pass.

This fact has been brought home to me as I'm selecting my next computer - Mac or PC? This is a consequential choice, as I continue to utilize a range of client applications, not all of which are cross-platform.

If applications were all delivered through the browser, such as Google Docs or Blackboard, then the Mac/PC choice would be less important. But some of the essential tools I use, particularly authoring tools, are client only. On the Mac side these applications include ScreenFlow and iMovie. Even the cross-platform client applications that I use all the time, such as Techsmith Camtasia Relay and Camtasia Studio store their files and data locally instead of in the cloud.

Perhaps when the Google Chrome OS comes out, accompanied by a range of cheap but robust Chrome OS netbooks, we will begin to see an erosion of the Windows/Mac divide. A netbook built for and around Google apps through the Chrome browser may be pretty compelling. But maybe not - as even the best browser apps can't seem to match the user quality experience of client applications.

Some thoughts on why the Web app has failed to takeover:

1. Client Apps Are Just Better: You can only get so far with AJAX and other programming wizardry, as the browser is an inherently limited platform.

2. Improvements in OS X: It may be that the Apple has taken the market share of users (and mindshare) that we thought would migrate to browser based apps and the cloud. OS X is simply a great operating system - rock solid, fast, gorgeous and intuitive. Apple brings us in with beautiful hardware and a great operating system, and keeps us with client applications (both their own and 3rd party) that work so nicely with Apple's integrated hardware/OS approach.

3. The Mobile App: The real innovation nowadays does not seem to be browser based applications (although I'm continually impressed with Google's productivity tools), but at the app. Lightweight and cheap, the app (whether it be for the iPhone/iPad/Touch or Android devices) is where the excitement is. We will continue to do many things with full-blown client software, like multimedia authoring etc., but other tasks (particularly social tasks) will migrate to the mobile device and the app.

How does the stalling of the web App transition impact education and learning technology?

I worry that the browser based LMS is starting to feel more kludgy and limited each day. Perhaps Google has the resources to create a wonderful browser based user experience, I'm not convinced anyone else does. I'm also wondering if mobile apps for education, such as Blackboard's Mobile Learn, will end up being robust enough to offer learning and collaboration experiences above and beyond the browser version.

Why and how does the Mac/Windows choice matter for you? Do you see the importance of the OS divide decreasing in the future? Are you a Mac or a PC?


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