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April 2, 2007

Do We Need A Life Or Desktop Gmail?

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David at 37signals made an interesting argument today concerning people’s obsession with offline Web apps. His position is summed up nicely by the title of his post, which reads: You’re not on a fucking plane (and if you are, it doesn’t matter). In case you couldn’t tell, David’s not buying into the idea that a desktop-based Gmail will make all of our lives better.

I’m not 100 percent on where I fall on this argument, but I think I’m more inclined not to agree with David than to start calling the idea of offline Web applications bizarre, as David does:

"The idea of offline web applications is getting an undue amount of attention. Which is bizarre when you look at how availability of connectivity is ever increasing. EVDO cards, city-wide wifis, iPhones, Blackberry’s. There are so many ways to get online these days that the excitement for offline is truly puzzling. Until you consider the one place that is still largely an island of missing connectivity: The plane!"

He’s right in that accessibility is far more rampant today than was just a few years ago. But that’s not to say that everyone is connected. I’m not sure where David lives, but in California we have these really large things called "hills" that very often block said connectivity. It’s kind of a problem, and more to the point – damn annoying. [Not to mention that we also have things like the ‘working class’ who can’t necessarily afford geek toys that provide constant internet access. –Susan] — Broke people unite!

Having access to offline Web apps means I don’t lose my work when the weather starts to turn or when my entire apartment complex gets the brilliant idea of trying to log onto the same wireless connection (not that I try to leech broadband. Never.) Until Web access is as reliable as the other utilities we’ve come to count on for day-to-day survival, there’s a need for offline applications. And yes, as I learned during last week’s outage, I do need Gmail for my day-to-day survival. Otherwise the safety of the people around me is very much in jeopardy.

The unreliability of Web apps today is what creates the need for offline counterparts. I imagine in a few years time the entire globe will be connected, but that’s not the case today.

It doesn’t so much bother me than I can’t chat with my little brother while I’m 3,000 feet in the air. Now that my brother is 20 I have finally accepted his existence and don’t mind speaking to him, but I can wait until I get off the plane to gossip. It’s also not a problem for me that I can only write my emails while soaring above Colorado and I have to wait until I’m in my hotel room and connected to send them. I’ll live. I don’t think offline apps are cool for me; I think they’re cool for the people who don’t live in areas where a connection is readily available. Or for people like Bruce who travel and often stay in hotels where price gouging for wireless is seen as a competitive sport.

The value of desktop-based applications is that it gives users a choice. They can decide when and how they want to work. If they want to connect while they’re stuck on the subway, they can. If they want to check email on their train ride home, they have the chance.

The part of offline applications where I find myself agreeing with David is the increasing need people have to be connected at all times. The feeling we have that if we’re not connected we’re "missing something" is not healthy. Now, I am completely guilty of living in this bizarro world where I read my RSS feeds before I eat my bowl of cereal, but that doesn’t make it right. I think everyone who subscribes to this way of life should be put on medication.

There’s a danger when your life and your work bleed over to where you can’t tell the difference, and offline applications feed into that. I’m all for offline applications but they must be used responsibility. Don’t geek and fly. Use the plane as your safe haven away from the crazy illuminating tech gadgets. Read a book or do something really wacky and start up a conversation with the stranger stuck sitting next to you. Try it; you’ll probably scare them. It’s totally fun.

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3 responses to “Do We Need A Life Or Desktop Gmail?”

  1. Jean Biri writes:

    I can think of two situations that happen to me often where desktop apps are God sent.

    1) Emails. I use my desktop based client to read emails that I received on previous days but that I never read fully or replied to because I had other things to do and did not have time.

    I might not have the connection to send those emails but at least, i have them ready for the next signal.

    With a web based client like Gmail, I would have not been able to do do the same and that dead time on the plane would have been used to nap or chat up by neighbour which is maybe good for my health and social life respectively.

    2) One reason I opted for NetNewsWire instead of Google Reader for instance is the same. Before I board a plane, I will will refresh my feeds and read the snippets or sometimes full length posts in offline mode.

    I just bookmark the ones that I need to read later with an Internet connection but for the rest, it’s all good.

    By the way, I am not suggesting that I spend the whole trip on the net instead of reading a book, watching a movie, chatting with fellow passengers.

    But if you’re flying from North America to Brazil for instance, you will find that you could use an hour to an hour and half getting some work done.

  2. anand kishore writes:

    All said and done, it is all about reducing the dependency to stay connected. Although staying connected doesn’t mean a lot for most of us, it does matter in developing/undeveloped nations where the internet connectivity costs are sky high. In such scenarios it would be better if most of the work could be done offline.

  3. Chris writes:

    I’m not sure that I would agree with Dave at all.

    Considering that 37signals offers some really great products. I see 2 flaws in his comment.

    #1. First mistake.. Choice of Language, I’ve lost all respect for 37Signals..

    #2. Basecamp is a great addition to any company. And an offline software version that allowed companies to input new client projects and upload them to basecamp would be supurb..

    But then again, Successful companies are to blinded by thier current success to realize any possibility of what can make their software any more successful. But then again, Whom ever writes a Web 2.0 style basecamp program with offline capabilities can be the new top dog so to speak. So remarks like this only shoot the top dog’s in the foot.



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