Back in the 1990’s, during the first great browser war, we were assured that our web browser would soon be the only platform we would need. Applications would dynamically download and the single-click hyperlink would simplify interfacing to the point where computing was accessible to the masses.
Sadly, and despite waterfalls of VC cash splashing around at the time, that didn’t happen, but twenty years later at least part of the dream is becoming true.
At VisionMobile we’ve been looking at Desktop developers, taking data from our biannual Developer Economics survey which reached more than 13,000 developers across 140 countries. When we look at that data we can see that the never-humble web browser is now the most-popular platform amongst desktop developers, and those who aren’t developing for it are distributing their apps through it.
Windows Classic (versions prior to Windows 8) still makes a strong showing, but with the sole exception of Eastern Europe the most-important platform for desktop developers is now the web browser.
Many of the original arguments in favour of web-based applications are still valid: Inherent support for cross-platform applications, fast development using WISIWYG paradigms, and a runtime environment that can execute code which make a finite number of monkeys blush, while the many of the limitations have passed into oblivion.
Back in the day Apple users were still happy with a single click and the long-hold, but the rest of us could manage to use two fingers. But that didn’t stop Microsoft wholeheartedly embracing the hyperlink-as-an-interface with Windows Active Desktop, in 1997. The new paradigm replaced the Windows desktop with a web page, complete with hyperlinks, embedded content, and security holes big enough for an Australian road train. Anyone who had used Windows before ended up running applications twice (double click is a hard habit to kick) while everyone else wondered why the icons were all underlined (hyperlinks were always underlined in the 90’s), and Microsoft shelved the idea with the launch of Windows Vista.
But shelving doesn’t mean giving up, and web interfaces have come on a very long way since then. Drag ‘n drop, right clicking, accessible hardware, and application persistence, have made the browser into a workable user interface, which is why 65% of the global desktop developer community is targeting the browser as a platform in which to run their applications.
Google is rebuilding the browser-as-a-platform with ChromeOS, though its recent announcements regarding the use of Android on laptops (notably the Pixel C) throws some doubt on the company’s commitment to the Netscape dream.
Even developers who aren’t creating browser-apps are dependent on the browser to get their native apps distributed. Our figures show that the majority of applications are being distributed that way even if they are executed locally. Both Apple and Microsoft are trying hard to get desktop developers to embrace the app-store concept, exchanging the freedom of channel for the security of a curated store, but with limited success. Even in games; the most-popular category, only 25% are sent out through an app store compared to the 29% which are delivered through the web browser.
App stores are very nice things to have. Secure distribution of applications reduces the quantity of malware enormously, and the tighter the platform is locked down the less malware there is, but app stores also assure clean uninstallations and provide a central location for peer reviews to quickly identify errant (or worthless) applications.
That’s one reason why Microsoft and Apple are working so hard to promote them, but it is not the only one. Quite apart from the revenue stream (30% of every transaction sure adds up) there is the matter of control and communications – Apple controls the applications available for iOS devices, while Google exerts less (but still significant) control over Android, but those companies also maintain a relationship with the end user which disintermediates the network operator, the device manufacturer, and anyone else in between.
In 2007 Vodafone’s CEO, Arun Sarin, summed up the operators’ position, which was largely built upon hubris:
“The simple fact that we have the customer and billing relationship is a hugely powerful thing that nobody can take away from us … Whoever comes into the marketplace is going to have to work through us”
Application stores replace that billing relationship, undermining the operators’ relationship with the customer and opening the way for more premium services (video, music, etc) to be sourced from the platform owner with the minimum of friction.
Right now the browser is the preferred runtime platform, and the preferred distribution mechanism for desktop developers, just as Netscape envisioned it 20 years ago. That’s where we are today, but it would be a brave man who’d state that the age of the browser has arrived – developers might like it, and users have grown comfortable with the extended feature set it offers, but the web browser might not be serving the corporate interests which are (after all) paying for it all.
If you’d like to see more about what Cloud and Desktop Developers are doing then take a look at our Landscape report in the subject.