Boy, there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think how much more productive I could be if every single one of my creative apps ran online.
Scratch that. No, I’ve actually never thought that.
Online applications can be fantastic. I’m using one right now. Having Flickr for photos and Vimeo for videos, and so on, can vastly expand the potential of what you can do with media. And I certainly see casual users of those applications preferring online services in some cases. (On the other hand, I also know even a lot of casual photographers who would rather sit in Aperture or Lightroom and tweak their photos than struggle with a Web app — for them, the Web is about uploading and sharing, not editing.)
It’s just really hard to see why pros would need to do everything online. And here’s the fundamental problem: why are we talking about taking applications online rather than taking online to applications? Witness Adobe’s Bruce Chizen making vague predictions about the far-off future — ten years, to be exact. By that point, we might as well start talking about how we’ll all be flooded by global warming and under attack by the Mutant Bug People who have dominated the Earth. But in ten years, says Adobe, their products will be fully online. Why? Uh … haven’t figure that one out yet, evidently.
Now, in fairness, the response was prompted by a leading question at a Web 2.0 conference. But I think that’s the problem. There’s now a bandwagon approach to all software becoming Web-based, even though most users remain heavily dependent on client-side apps, very few Web services are genuinely profitable, and no one seems to be able to explain why you would want to do this in the first place. There are significant issues with latency and data bandwidth for rich media on a local computer. Imagine if you tried to do everything via the Web. It’d be a giant leap backwards in capabilities.
Don’t get me wrong. I think there’s enormous opportunity for Adobe to make their creative tools more Web-savvy. They currently have limited collaboration options using PDF. Imagine if you could directly markup timelines in videos and motion graphics interactively, and share edit links dynamically over the Web. There are many possible ways of doing this, including intermediate Web apps that interconnect with client apps, or just the Creative Suite as we now know it able to pull edit data from servers as easily as locally.
But Chizen isn’t talking about what you might actually do with software. Instead, he wants to talk about pricing, and specifically online subscription models. A younger generation wouldn’t want to pay enormous amounts of money for packaged software, he says. On the contrary, I find that no one is particularly keen about regularly spending thousands on software. Young people can take advantage of Adobe’s generous educational discounts. And many people do pay a lot for Adobe’s software, not because it comes in a nice box, but because they feel the capabilities it offers are enormous and worth the money.
Adobe’s software — or anyone else’s in the creative space — is about what you can do. The delivery mechanism and online features are secondary. Yet, we’re talking about the technology first, and then figuring out what it’s for second. That’s wrong. Parties other than Adobe tend to lead this debate, but maybe Adobe should push back a little. Adobe, Microsoft, and Apple have all come under fire lately for being part of a supposedly “dinosaur-like” model of conventional, rich-client software in the Web age. Yet no one seems to care that these “dinosaurs” make extraordinary amounts of cash, create software that still, for all its faults, has extraordinary capabilities unequaled by a lot of the online alternatives, and will very likely outlast most of the Web tools currently garnering buzz. (WordPress and Flickr will survive — but they sure go great with Flash and Lightroom, huh?) I’ve tracked similar efforts to build better online music apps on Create Digital Music, but most of us feel that in no case would these replace conventional apps; they’d complement them. (Hey, a lot of us are still using analog synths on the music side, so it’s clear technology in general isn’t either/or. Ditto the various optical technologies used by visualists.)
Anyway, enough of this rant. If you want an intelligent solution to this problem, go ask someone who actually develops software. The most recent episode of The Java Posse podcast puts together a terrific roundtable of people. The revelations here aren’t exactly profound, but what they do illustrate is that client and server are likely to become a rich spectrum, not an either/or choice. And Adobe is a big contributor to that with Flex and Flash (rivaling Java’s alternatives in many cases). I suspect their creative apps could similarly benefit from this continuum, both in creating for it and in engaging these possibilities in the tools themselves.