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What Will it Take to Transition from Desktop-Based Application to Cloud-Based Applications?

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Whether you look in the enterprise space, with a fierce competition between, NetSuite and SAP, in groupware, office suites (with Zoho and Google Apps), and now even in business intelligence, the transition seems inevitable. Great Applications don't fit in a box (a computer or even a server) any longer and computing devices are becoming essentially information access points.

Raju Vegesna, evangelist at Zoho, gave his perspective on the question:

We expect to see a migration to the cloud based computing the same way we saw the migration from Mainframes to PC... We are currently seeing users slowly (?) migrating from desktop applications to online applications.

The key he explains is to make this transition easy, not just easier:

We are noticing that PC App vendors are extending their offline applications to the cloud for future compatibility. Microsoft extending their MS Office with MS Office Live Workspace is a good example of this. On the other hand, online app vendors like Zoho are extending the apps to the offline mode for backward compatibility. While these are two different approaches in opposite directions, they are basically doing the same….transitioning the user.

Raju sees two important steps:

  • Offline support is important, at least till we are always connected
  • Make a web based application look and behave like an offline app

While Google Gears seems to become the de facto standard to address the first point, Raju points at Mozilla Prism as a possible candidate to help with the second point. With Prism, Mozilla, lets users add their favorite web apps to their desktop environment:

They are accessible with Control-Tab, Command-Tab, and Exposé, just like desktop apps. And users can still access these same applications from any web browser when they are away from their own computers.

Unlike Adobe AIR and Microsoft Silverlight, we’re not building a proprietary platform to replace the web.

For Michael Arrington, who leads TechCrunch:

Flash, Silverlight and Ajax get most web applications over the hump in terms of usability and are the technologies behind the fast transition of desktop applications to the web. But it’s not clear that they’ll ever kill off all desktop applications entirely. The bridge between them may very well be Air and/or Prism.

Michael interviewed Matt Gertner, co-founder of AllPeers, now working with Mozilla on Prism. Matt comments:

Web apps simply don’t provide the responsiveness, performance, whizzy graphics and access to local data that users crave, and they only work when you’re connected to the internet.

Single-site browsers (SSBs) [like Prism] aim to bring the best of the desktop to web applications...Creating a single-site browser for a website a one-click process that can be performed directly inside Firefox 3

Matt points to Fluid, an early SSB framework built by Todd Ditchendorf:

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature is “built-in support for Greasemonkey-compatible userscripting.” For those not familiar with Greasemonkey, this means that a web app can be modified with a simple JavaScript file that runs on the client whenever the app is loaded.

Of course, we also have to link these comments to the recent post from CogHead's CTO, Greg Olsen, who pointed out that services like Amazon's S3 will play a crucial role in the next evolution of SaaS. In the near future, it might become really difficult to see the difference between a desktop application and a web application when your storage, handled by S3, will become available to SSBs, launched seamlessly from a Start Menu near you (populated of course with your secure thumb drive).

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