The Web Gets Down to Work
New Web services--ones that mimic desktop applications but work entirely within a browser window--appear constantly. But the Web apps you'll eventually use will focus on productivity and mobility, instead of simply giving you the same functions you'd find in a desktop application.
"Web applications are terrific for situations where you want to share and collaborate," says Google product manager Bret Taylor. "That's where we see the most benefit: for consumers planning the annual family reunion or a group of colleagues putting together a sales proposal."
Brandon Schauer, design strategist for Web consulting firm Adaptive Path, says the next phase of Web applications will focus on practical uses: "things that the rest of the world might have a reason to interact with, not just the Generation Y people who have time to click around," he says.
One business-focused Web application, Coghead, has been in development since 2003 but will launch about the time you read this. It's a beefy-looking app that allows nonprogrammers to build their own custom applications for tasks like inventory control, with data stored entirely online. Coghead CEO Paul McNamara says the application will be aimed at small to medium-size businesses, and at people who have some level of technical ability--"people who do macros in Microsoft Excel, work in Microsoft Access, or Adobe Dreamweaver," explains McNamara.
Another Web application that reflects that trend toward productivity is weSpendMoney. Due to launch in October, it's one of the first offerings to store users' financial data exclusively online, unlike more traditional desktop applications such as Intuit Quicken or Microsoft Money. Pedro Sousa, one of the developers, says that future versions of the application will allow users to view their data on the tiny screens of Web-enabled cell phones, too.
A focus on mobility is a common theme among Web apps. "At some point, applications as advanced as Google Earth will be able to run on devices as small as a cell phone," says Google's Taylor. "Users will be able to search and collaborate more effectively no matter where they are."
Another category that will gain in popularity is what Adaptive Path's Schauer calls "workarounds." Examples include Kayak.com, a site that uses a Web app to help people deal with the aggravation of shopping for airline tickets, and VideoEgg, which compresses video via a plug-in, thereby skirting poky uploads caused by slow upstream connections.
Social networking sites like MySpace are huge, but sites that aren't purely social will use people connections to solve problems. Schauer says sites that use social networks in this way "plug into what the Web has always been great at, which is getting you together with people who share the same interests but may be miles away." Examples include Last.fm and Pandora, which ascertain your musical preferences and play songs from additional artists you might like. These sites also let you find and play "stations" that have been created by others. Another similar site, Soundflavor, has yet to launch.
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