What Does “Web Paradigm” Mean, Anyway? (Part 1)

A trackback to my previous post lamenting the trend of making everything a Firefox extension was linked by one of the creators of the AllPeers software mentioned in that post. In the post, I am firmly labelled as the type of person who sees this new-fangled Intarweb thingamajig as just a fad; and that I think the “web broswer … user interface paradigm,” whatever that may be, should stick to rendering HTML.

I think this is the first time I’ve ever been called an “old fogie,” even if indirectly.

So let me rejoin by building from the author’s points. To begin with:

Clearly I’m not the only one who thinks that the desktop paradigm could benefit greatly from user interface innovations pioneered in the web browser. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to make Windows look increasingly like a web browser, with back/forward buttons, hyperlinks and MIME-specific viewers cropping up all over the place.

This is very true. As the dominate user-interface, Windows has certainly moved in this direction - and every other interface out there, from KDE to OS X, has followed suit. Indeed, Apple has even further expanded on this idea in OS X. One cannot help but think of the Firefox Google box when using Spotlight.

Furthermore, at least for modern versions of Windows, the joining of web content with the desktop runs even deeper. The heart of the Windows interface and experience, Explorer, is essentially just a wrapper around Microsoft’s web engine. Thus, Explorer not only provides the capability to list, move, and launch files, it also provides the ability to view and execute web content. We even have forward and back buttons. Heck, this can even extend all the way to the desktop itself with the Active Desktop feature in Windows, once heralded as the next-greatest-thing, a replacement for the aging, regular-old, boring desktop.

So here we are in 2006, and guess what? The web has already been integrated into and greatly benefited the desktop - it happened when we downloaded IE4 eight years ago. The great integration effort is over, and it didn’t really change anything. Sure, if you want, now you can single-click an icon instead of double-clicking it. Yeah, we can view previews of the documents and images in a folder along the left-hand side of an Explorer window. It’s pretty nice that we can click on hyperlink in an error message and get up-to-date information about what caused the crash from Microsoft’s servers. Really, though, except for the hyperlinked error messages, which of those wouldn’t have happened eventually anyway? And really, what is there left to do? Add tabs to Explorer? Stick a Google Box in the corner? Those are marginal enhancements to a user interface. They are easy, and can be considered innovation only by the Microsoft definition.

What about the other direction? Can we bring the desktop to the web? The answer is that we’ve been trying to from the very beginning! The truth is, the web paradigm is only good at a few specific things. Most notable among them are intentional directed arcs between different nodes on the network (a.k.a. links), commonality in languages, and ubiquity in protocol support. It is notoriously bad at everything else. Notice that web applications have always striven to behave more like desktop applications. Since the very beginning, any web application of any complexity yearned to present a stateful, responsive, user-driven application flow. Sessions, cookies, and Javascript were all created with this in mind. Witness the advent of Ajax as the latest effort in this campaign to make the web more like the desktop. It’s the next logical step in a path that began with the <form> element all those years ago.

Can we then integrate the desktop into the web browser? Would we even want to? This is the direction the AllPeers auther is heading, a direction with which I strongly disagree. I’ll pick up with this point tomorrow.