Wednesday, February 22, 2006

With Web 2.0, why'd we bother getting rid of mainframes?

Slashdot ran a story yesterday called Office Tools on the Web.

I don't get it. Except for the shared-document side of things, who wants to use a web browser as a word processor or spreadsheet? How annoying. I wouldn't mind having automatic backups of my stuff to the web, but I certainly don't have any desire to use a second-rate Javascript app over Microsoft Word or OpenOffice.

Debunking the why's:

Myth: The UIs are easier for non-technical people. All you need to know is a web browser.

Fact: It's far easier to make powerful UIs with traditional Windows and Mac components. The UIs are much more consistent on Windows or Mac as well, whereas every web developer has to be clever to figure out how to get reasonable interactivity out of a web browser. All computer users are aware of how to click a different icon to get processing.

Myth: The stuff is accessible from anywhere!

Fact: Sure, if their servers are up. The web is stateless, but unfortunately requires a connection exactly when you need it when you use it as an application. How often have you wanted to get to Gmail and had "Service unavailable" for 10 minutes or more? Using POP with Outlook or Thunderbird means you can get to your email when you need it, and just new email wouldn't arrive while the connection is down.

Myth: More reliable! No more having to back up your hard drive?

Fact: If you believe this, you haven't tried using any of these. You obviously never have lost something you've typed for hours into a Gmail or Blogger window and then had Gmail crash and lose your work. Or you've never submitted something, had a problem with the web server, then try to go back to the last webform with the back button and see all of your typing lost.

The bottom line is, by accepting Web 2.0, we're back to the mainframe days, except with with less reliability. Did you know that a <1% failure rate is considered acceptable to a lot of these web companies? Can you imagine of 1% of Word users were losing their work lately, what the outcry to Microsoft would be?

Thanks, I'll take my desktop apps. I wouldn't mind having web-delivered applications, like Avalon/XAML or Java Webstart promise. I don't mind them as long as they can use IsolatedStorage to store stuff on my local disk, then back it up to the server later. What I really don't need is waiting on a less reliable central server than an AS/400 to write a Word document just so someone can put ads in front of me.

PS - I just lost a big section of this message because Blogger didn't properly interpret the less than sign, thus trying to make it into an HTML tag. These web apps are for the birds.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Let's Never EVER compare against the Beatles ever again

I was just reading the blurb on Rhapsody about Enuff Z'Nuff. It says:

"Donnie Vie and bassist Chip Z'Nuff vibe off one another like a modern day Lennon-McCartney pairing."

I'd like to propose a new law. Congress, please feel free to put this into effect.

I. No one must ever compare any band to the Beatles ever again.

II. The only time we should hear mention of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, The Beatles... ok, even Ringo... is when we're talking about Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and the Beatles.

III. The sentence where their name is mentioned must never contain any other proper noun of any kind.

IV. Any of the above are considered a felony punishable by a year imprisonment or subject to 15 days of listening to The Knack.

V. It is a misdemeanor to talk of the Beatles as the greatest rock band, mention Lennon's comparison to a deity, or ever mention or allude to Yoko Ono in any way. Punishment will be community service of judging a high school Battle of the Bands.

VI. Any discussion of where you or a family member was when the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan show mandates a lifetime banishment to Liverpool.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Cable modem v. DSL

Conventional wisdom tells us that switched networks are better, right?

Those of us who have been using networked computers for a while surely remember thicknet or coax ethernet (aka thinnet). The adapters for these usually had a "collision" light, which told you when a packet you were trying to send collided with someone else trying to send a packet. I'm no networking engineer, but I think the fallback on a collision was to wait some random amount of time and try sending the packet again. In short, a busy network was a slow network.

Now we are all used to 10-, 100-, 1000-base-T, which is switched, and works amazingly better than thinnet or thicknet ever did.

The geeks pick DSL over cable for exactly this reason: it's switched. You don't share your bandwidth with your neighbor (well, at least until both of you get to the DSLAM, then you share the common bandwidth from that point).

Here's the problem, it's not true in practice. Every time I've sat on a cable modem, it's been faster than my DSL ever has been. I've even paid a lot extra for a measly 3.0 mbit, which I never reached. My last DSL could only get as high as 1.6 mbit if I was very lucky -- and I paid $72 a month for that service. Granted, some of that expense was having a static IP address.

Well today I got my first cable modem. Guaranteed 6.0 mbit. I expected 3 if I was lucky. Guess what? So far it is always 6 mbit. As I write this, I'm downloading Solaris 10 in another window. It's averaging 6.1 Mbit per second. The latency is way better than DSL has ever been.

Oh, and it's $43 a month.

Of course, it requires dealing with the cable company. So far, they've actually been pretty good to me. They've answered the phone quickly when I've called and the service has been good. I really wish Comcast wouldn't insist on installing malware to activate your cable modem (they change the name of your internet explorer, your home page, etc). Other than that, the process has been pretty amazing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

There's only so much a client side script can do

I just got the Gmail Chat upgrade. It's really nice. It actually works really well considering that I'm logged into Google Talk at the same time. It understands that I've sent someone a message from a particular location, only directs their replies to that location, etc. It also logs chats in Gmail, which I like. I would prefer they be stored there instead of on my work harddisk, frankly.

However, this upgrade has made Gmail slower, again. I'm running in Firefox on a monster PC at work (dual 3.4 ghz xeon, 64-bit windows, 4G of ram). It's popping up windows all over the place that seem kind of pokey. The presence of the chat window itself just seems to be slightly slowing things down a little bit.

Meanwhile, I was looking at a news story on this morning, who have cleverly made it so stock quotes update live while you read the story. That's nice and clever, but again it's just making my webpage slower.

Softimage XSI, a 3D application, allows you to script in Python or JScript, thanks to exposing a COM interface. Even with the extra COM layer, I ran some tests that showed Python to be about 3x faster than JScript. And my test was mostly just making calls into the app, with a few inner loops to do some calculations.

So where's the cap on the amount of functionality that we can shove into Javascript and hope the web browser can handle? By all accounts, Javascript is slow. Writing a fully functional, interactive UI would just be too slow to be useful -- and this is the limit that Gmail seems to be approaching right about now.

What's the solution, JITted Javascript? What sick person would do that?

I think the latest speed hit on Gmail is another bullet point to back up my claim that Javascript is a language we're all going to end up tearing out of these websites sooner or later. In the future, we will still see data-driven UIs using something like XAML, but backed up by code that can actually be reasonably developed and JITted. C# and Java are your two main possibilities, one's got Microsoft on its side of course.