Web OS: ‘Good enough’ is not good enough

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Technology
August 26th, 2005 • 5:17 pm

Jason Kottke has a recent post about web-based applications entitled “GoogleOS? YahooOS? MozillaOS? WebOS?

It’s a good read that makes you wonder where things are going. One section that is particularly interesting to me is the one where he quotes Paul Graham:

Web pages weren’t designed to be a UI for applications, but they’re just good enough. And for a significant number of users, software that you can use from any browser will be enough of a win in itself to outweigh any awkwardness in the UI.

Personally, I find this highly problematic, and I am a bit surprised that, as a Mac user, Jason Kottke doesn’t raise the issue himself, which is: Do we really want a computer environment where things are “good enough” from a UI perspective? Isn’t that what we already have with Windows?

As Mac users, we are particularly sensitive to UI issues, and many of us are still Mac users today primarily because “good enough” simply is not good enough for us. Because of this, if the evolution towards web-based applications continues, we will become an endangered species.

Even if Apple itself became one of the main providers of web-based applications (and that’s a big if), I just don’t see how this would help prevent a significant decline in the quality of our UI environments. Apple would be forced to compromise on all kinds of UI design issues, and a lot of the pixel-perfect polish of an environment such as Mac OS X would be lost.

At least, that’s what I gather from my own experience with web design, and from what is currently available to us in terms of web-based applications.

One simple issue would be interface responsiveness, for example. It’s already bad enough that we frequently have to wait for our hard drives to complete such and such a task before we can regain control of the UI. (And it happens far too often, even on a fast machine.) Can you imagine what it would be like with the bottle-neck of a network connection’s limited and fluctuating bandwidth?

Even in Mac OS X, there are still many aspects of the interface where the user is faced with an unexplained and unexpected lack of responsiveness. It’s something that you can get used to over time, I guess, if it always occurs in the same places at the same stages, but it’s still something that Apple hasn’t really managed to eliminate, in spite of the huge improvements in CPU speed, memory amounts, hard drive speeds, etc.

Take a simple example: the fact that Spotlight starts a search as soon as you start typing in the search field, instead of waiting for you to complete your typing and press Return to start the search. It’s already bad enough for local searches, even on a fast machine. Can you imagine how bad it would be if the Google field in Safari behaved in the same way? Eeek.

This flaw in the design of Spotlight clearly shows that even Apple — supposedly the world-leading UI specialist — can far too easily be tempted to ignore the annoying limitations of real computing tasks in the real world in the process of designing its software.

I certainly don’t see how moving towards more web-based applications (i.e. towards more of a web-based OS or “Web OS”) would help improve things in any way in terms of the quality of the user interface. Quite the contrary. It’s a trend that could very well signal the end of polished UI environments and user friendliness as we Mac OS users know them.

I, for one, hope that it won’t happen, certainly not with today’s web technologies and standards.

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