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How popular would 'Emily' be right now if Emily had been allowed to operate out in public unmolested like the giant companies do? You know... what would Emily have been known as today? Would she be as popular and necessary to the next information revolution as, say, AJAX?
I think Emily can be shown to have had a much greater potential for a much more rapid adoption rate than AJAX has shown. AJAX has been developed in public since March 2005. Emily was selling products in 2001. The fact AJAX has taken so long and still has a long way to go to become a robust platform for critical real time distributed use decries the 'obvious' tag for VCSy technology.
By any reckoning, the Internet and the World Wide Web have remade the way we do business. The ascendance of the Web-based enterprise has come to be seen as inevitable. But anyone who takes a hard look at the serious limitations of first-generation Web applications is likely to have a renewed sense of wonder at the spread of their adoption thus far. Users experimented with e-mail, instant messaging, and search engines and turned them into real communication, collaboration, and information-gathering tools. Those same business users endured their fitful interactions with static HTML pages and moved applications to the Web anyway because of the substantial savings promised by the shift.
Now their patience is about to be rewarded. Emerging from a decade of groundwork is Web 2.0, which offers dramatic gains in productivity for individual workers and whole enterprises. Web 2.0 applications are distributed collaborative tools available on-demand from any browser anywhere. And those tools are constructed to be at least as intuitive and easy-to-use as any application loaded on a desktop.
And the user experience is absolutely central to the Web 2.0 model. Web 2.0 applications must possess a set of user interface components that are as compelling and responsive as a desktop-based environment. Developers can no longer be satisfied to offer discontinuity in user experience, because widely distributed, frequently mobile users won't be able to tolerate it and do their jobs well. The improved user experience will include, but must extend beyond, the most common productivity tools, such as word processing applications and e-mail. Web 2.0 and AJAX-based applications represent an opportunity to fully realize the Web's potential to make users smarter and more productive, and that opportunity extends to the most sophisticated back-end and analytic applications.
How We Got Here: Evolutionary Steps to Web 2.0
As any significant technology evolves toward maturity, attention shifts from the technology itself to the work that the technology enables. That shift is clearly manifest in Web 2.0, the third major phase of the Web's evolution, which can be summarized like this:
- Web 1.0 - Content delivery and communication. This early stage changed the dissemination of information via two innovations, HTML pages and e-mail.
- Web 1.5 - Content personalization and multi-level communication. Search and personalization made the spread of information more efficient, while chat rooms and instant messaging expanded communication in real-time.
- Web 2.0 - Authoring and collaboration. This current stage is not about the dissemination of information, it's about productivity - accomplishing work-related tasks in a virtual space with tools and applications that are available anywhere, at any time, and can be shared collaboratively.
The user experience gap between Windows and the Web has been due to the limitations of the early Web client/server model, with the Web server as the platform for all processing logic and the browser as the client handling nothing more than the data display. In this architecture, users interact with HTML and each of their actions triggers a request to the server, which in turn triggers the generation of a new page.
The incessant reloading of the page severely limits the user experience for a couple reasons. First, flipping from page to page can disorient the user as the allocation of tasks on different page views causes loss of context. On top of that, reloading the page causes a disjointed and rigid interactive flow. The user has to wait for the next page to initiate a new interaction or change the workflow, or be bounced back to the previous page to alter information in a field. Think of the online shopper on a retail site who can't order three shirts instead of two without returning to page one, and then extend the problem to business users struggling with enterprise applications throughout their workday.
The difficulties of the interaction are compounded as the complexity of applications and user options increases. For example, imagine the user experience of writing a document in an application created in Web client/server mode. For each paragraph, the user must open a dialog, enter the text in the input box, and wait for the changes to be applied to the document when the page is refreshed. And then all the steps must be repeated for every edit or format change. The frustrated user needs plenty of patience and training to work with the tool.
This seemingly small change has a profound effect on the user's experience. Transferring more of the interaction to the client side not only improves the workflow, it also allows the addition of enriching UI components, which put AJAX-based Web applications on a par with desktop applications for usability. There are, it should be noted, alternatives to AJAX - Adobe's Flash technology also provides a means to develop rich clients and DHTML allows one to partially upload components on an HTML page without reloading the entire page. But AJAX's combination of cross-browser compatibility, zero footprint, and ability to provide interactive complexity to the user gives it a leg up on the competitive technologies.
The improved interactivity of Web 2.0 applications is driving even more applications off the desktop, since the lower total cost of ownership now comes without the offsetting negatives of cumbersome user experience. These transitional Web 2.0 applications enabled by AJAX have been productivity tools, such as word processing and e-mail applications, calendars and spreadsheets. Examples are Google's recently released Writely and Google Spreadsheets; competitive word processors like Zoho Writer, Abe Writeboard, and ajaxWrite; Num Sum spreadsheet functionality; and 30 boxes, a Web-based calendar. Web-based desktops are also emerging, like the one available at www.desktoptwo.com.
Their lower TCO comes from centralizing most of the software in a single location on the server, with only a browser installed on desktops throughout the organization. This lowers installation and maintenance costs, provides for incremental upgrades to existing applications, creates user administration savings, and offers enterprise-wide control over document backup and archiving, as well as compliance and security. The Web 2.0 model makes applications instantly available to users, eliminating desktop installations. And it's a model that can be extended to applications across the enterprise.
For example, as sophisticated analytics and business intelligence information are pushed further out into the enterprise, it is essential that applications deliver the information smoothly, clearly, and in an uninterrupted context. AJAX provides the foundation for user interfaces based on reusable components, each of which enables a set of UI functions that can be manipulated individually for or by the user. The flexibility inherent in AJAX-enabled applications translates into quick, easy rollouts of new functionality as user needs change, as well as the ability to customize the interface for users based on their roles and specific needs. Improving the user experience translates into a parallel improvement in the user's ability to apply high-level information to the decision-making process, which is, after all, the goal of business intelligence.
Organizations were moving applications to the Web even before the emergence of Web 2.0 and AJAX-based tools because cost savings were so attractive that they trumped the limitations of first-generation Web applications. Now, with Web 2.0 applications that provide a user experience equal to that of desktop applications, that trend is going to build momentum rapidly.
For several years, enthusiasts have predicted that the impact of the Internet and the Web will rival that of the Industrial Revolution. Driven by the same need to use resources more effectively and increase productivity as that earlier transformation, Web 2.0 could make those predictions come true. But instead of centralizing workers and machines in factories, Web 2.0 will liberate a distributed, mobile workforce by offering consistent access to applications and information anywhere in the complex world of the global enterprise.