What made the web great can make the client great, too.

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

If you listen carefully to the Web 2.0 crowd, you will hear a disturbing undercurrent. They don’t just believe that the web is great. They believe that client applications are dinosaurs, dying relics of a programming paradigm that is irrelevant. I find this tendency alternately depressing and frustrating: not only is there a place for client applications, but it is a bright and promising future that can work in cooperation with the greatness of the internet.

Shaver is right: the web is great because it has fostered open cooperation, viral programming, coding by view-source, mashups and “being able to jam jQuery in the hole that used to have Prototype in it”. The internet provides an excellent medium for viral and open markup and programming. But this kind of programming does not need to be unique to the web, and the Mozilla platform is a great bridge between these two worlds.

Take a look at the Firefox extension system, for example. The extension system not only allows programmers to mashup the client, but it brings the world of view-source copy-paste development to the client in a way that is unprecedented. We can and should foster this same model of viral programming in client-side applications. This is the real power of XULRunner and the Mozilla platform, if we can tame and harness its complexity.

What does this mean in practice? The Mozpad (Mozilla Platform Application Developers) community has been working towards defining some projects and goals: I believe these goals should be evaluated in terms of their ability to bring web-style application development to the client. For example, a traditional “integrated” IDE is very poor at copying code from others and making it your own. If we really wanted to go down the IDE route (IMO we don’t) we should be thinking of features such as “I like this dialog, steal it” and integrated search for code patterns (from e.g. Google code).

Or, to take another example close to my heart, XULRunner application packaging. It is much more important to get a simple tool that can be used to package text files into an installer than worrying at all about compiling binary code. Binary code should be a minority and diminishing case in a viral-programming development model.

Even though Rafael Ebron claims that the rich client is dying, his point about offline web apps is important. The primary difference is of course the security and trust model: local apps have their run of the system and can perform complex network and disk activity (and install binaries if necessary), while offline web apps have to work within the bounds the browser has set out for them. Client apps are a complementary action for offline-enabled web applications, not direct competition.

I believe Mozpad should focus on the following high-impact investments:

  • reducing the barrier to entry for developers (code and documentation);
  • providing tools for viral programming (view-source, copy-paste, debugging and inspecting code)
  • evangelizing the platform’s strengths

There is a bright future for client-side applications! We need to stay focused on the strengths of the Mozilla platform and the web paradigm and not be distracted by “RIA madness”, complex toolchains, or the need to imitate existing proprietary solutions.