Taking web apps out of the browser: Does anybody care?

In late October the Mozilla Corporation announced Prism, the new version of its Webrunner technology that lets web applications run outside the browser. Mozilla positioned Prism as an open alternative to Adobe Air and Microsoft Silverlight, two other efforts to enrich web applications. Mozilla called Air and Silverlight “proprietary platforms” that seek to replace the Web. By contrast, Prism is supposed to be a “powerful and open platform” for innovation.
The reality is a lot more complex than what Mozilla described. For one thing, AIR and Silverlight are far more comprehensive than Prism, and focus on rich media more than running web apps outside the browser. Comparing them to Prism is like comparing a Hummer to a Vespa. But more importantly we think most computer users, and web app developers, don’t care deeply about the open purity of the technologies they work with. Most developers care most about which platform makes them the most productive, and most users care about solving their problems.
Judged by that standard, we’re not moved by the idea of running web apps outside the browser, because we’re not sure that solves a meaningful problem for users. We’re not aware of any PC or Mac users who are haunted by their inability to run web apps outside of a browser window. Most wouldn’t even know the difference if you explained it to them. We think this is one of those cases in which the tech industry has gotten itself worked up over small differences that aren’t very relevant to people in the real world.
The place where non-browser use of web apps could solve a problem is in mobile devices, where it’s common to be out of touch with the network, and network latency can make web apps frustratingly slow. But that requires taking the applications out of the browser, and storing their data so they can work offline, and making all of that work on a mobile device. So far none of the big web app frameworks is offering all three elements. Mozilla promises offline applications in Firefox 3, although that’s a PC-centric product. Adobe promises the next version of Air will be available for mobile devices, and Microsoft says it’s working on mobile Silverlight but has given no timeline that we can find.
Smaller competitors like Opera and Dojo Offline (which extends Google’s Gears technology) are also trying to deliver offline applications. It will be interesting to see if they can establish a strong mobile offering before the big guys get around to delivering on their promises. Something else we know about developers is that they’re not religious about using the biggest brand. The race is likely to go to the company that makes something genuinely useful first.

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