Get Over It, The Web is the Platform

I have to be careful sometimes when posting about Apple’s latest stuff, because I am, to a certain degree, what some call an Apple fanboy. I don’t like everything Apple does, but I am certainly receptive to their designs and their approach to consumer technology. I think they generally “get it right” whereas so many other tech companies simply pile on the features and end up with a horrible user experience. I have serious beefs with DRM and closed platforms, but I also don’t see anyone coming close to Apple in terms of usability, so I tend to overlook their significant mistakes in those areas. (No, sorry, I will never be able to get my parents to use Ubuntu, as much as I love and promote free software. It was tough enough to get them off Windows and Internet Explorer.)

Still, I left some time between Apple’s latest iPhone announcements and this blog entry in order to let the ideas distill a bit. It’s two weeks later, and I still think there’s something big going on here.

Apple is turning its web browser, Safari, into a new close-to-ubiquitous platform for software development. There was a hint of this with “Dashboard widgets” a while ago, but now they’ve made Safari run on Windows, and third-party iPhone apps will be written using HTML and JavaScript. A number of people think this is lame, while some are already noticing that this is a big deal. Others still are saying “ummm, isn’t Firefox a universal platform already?” I have a feeling the iPhone situation is going to be an especially big deal. The iPhone may legitimize web 2.0 apps as full-fledged apps for some heretofore dubious business users. Apple is making a statement: the web is the platform, get over it. No other major pre-web tech company has done that to date. Microsoft is pitching some “Web-but-more-enterprisey” idea, IBM is (for the most part) focused on a thick web services application stack. Google is all about the web of course, but they were all about the web to begin with. Apple, a company that has long depended on a thriving third-party application development community, is making it clear: user-interface development is HTML+JavaScript. Network protocols are HTTP and HTTPS. The backend is whatever you want as long as it talks HTTP. If you think you can’t develop a “real application” using web standards, you’re about to get left in the dust.

This is not new to a whole bunch of web 2.0 developers, and, again, Firefox folks are saying “ummm, duh, welcome to the club.” But it is new to many IT departments and to many users who still see a sharp line between web apps for “going online” and desktop apps for “real work.” You can see some enterprise IT folks complaining already about “renegade users” buying iPhones and trying to hook them into their corporate network. And when they ask for an “iphone-enabled corporate directory,” they’ll be asking for a web-enabled corporate directory. The Web is the Platform. The Web is the Platform. It’s going to start to sink in fast on June 29.

To me, an interesting question has to do with mash-ups, or, as the pre-web generation calls it, inter-process communication. Apple’s press release states:

Developers can create Web 2.0 applications which look and behave just like the applications built into iPhone, and which can seamlessly access iPhone’s services, including making a phone call, sending an email and displaying a location in Google Maps.

What does that mean, exactly? The simplest approach, which appears to be what Apple is opting for so far (given the one sample app they’ve demoed), is for the iPhone to trigger the mail application on mailto:ben@adida.net links, the phone application on phone:617.999.9999, and their fancy custom animated Google Maps interface on all HTTP queries to maps.google.com. That’s useful, but I’d like to be more impressed.

What if, at some point, Apple delivers some truly well thought-out ability to mash up a public web service with the iPhone’s local services? Imagine if there’s a way to have your web application say: “please go pick a contact from your address book, then post that contact’s information back to this URL”. Or if the web application can actually prepare a complete email on your behalf, image attachments included (oh the security issues….), and have you just confirm that, yes, you really want to send that email (the web app definitely can’t do that without confirmation)? What if Apple were to prepare a true web platform, where applications can make real procedure calls out to one another?

They certainly have the power to do it: they control Safari. They could being to define some JavaScript APIs, much like Google Gears for offline data storage, that enables this kind of private-public mashup. It would be fantastically interesting, because the security issues are mind boggling, but the resulting features are worth it. And it would spearhead some standards body to look into this issue more closely.

Whatever happens, though, the web is the platform. If you’re not writing apps in cross-browser-compliant HTML+JavaScript, the clock is ticking.

Or maybe I’m just an Apple fanboy.

7 thoughts on “Get Over It, The Web is the Platform

  1. Ben, you are an Apple Fanboy but as such you have minority status and therefore retain underdog chic. So, what’s the best platform for developing HTML+Javascript applications? A development environment that, for instance, abstracts away most of the browser-specific kludges

  2. Ben, you are an Apple Fanboy but as such you have minority status and therefore retain underdog chic. So, what’s the best platform for developing HTML+Javascript applications? A development environment that, for instance, abstracts away most of the browser-specific kludges

  3. Funny thing is if it does catch on it has nothing to do with choice in browser. IE spanked up on Netscape because of better features, tie-in, etc… but in this case Safari would gain share not due to a conscious decision to switch, but because people would dig how the iPhone does its voodoo. The average person wouldn’t even be conscious of the fact they were using it really.

    I’m torn. As much as I would kill to be rid of the browser specific kludges Zak speaks of, something about Apple and khtml possibly guiding web standards gives me the willies. I want standardization, but not sure I want it that bad.

    In any case, I’ll worry about all this when Joe Schmoe doesn’t have to drop half a grand to get the privilege of phoning the Apple way.

    P.S.
    Yes Ben, you are a fanboy.

  4. Funny thing is if it does catch on it has nothing to do with choice in browser. IE spanked up on Netscape because of better features, tie-in, etc… but in this case Safari would gain share not due to a conscious decision to switch, but because people would dig how the iPhone does its voodoo. The average person wouldn’t even be conscious of the fact they were using it really.

    I’m torn. As much as I would kill to be rid of the browser specific kludges Zak speaks of, something about Apple and khtml possibly guiding web standards gives me the willies. I want standardization, but not sure I want it that bad.

    In any case, I’ll worry about all this when Joe Schmoe doesn’t have to drop half a grand to get the privilege of phoning the Apple way.

    P.S.
    Yes Ben, you are a fanboy.

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