After taking a look at the beta version of Firefox 4, it's hard not to be disappointed. So much work is going into adapting Web-standard browser technology for new use models, including the never-turning-back move to mobility, and that work doesn't seem to yet be paying off.
A decade ago, browsers and Java opened our eyes to the possibility of "write once, run anywhere." Web standards became both a guidebook to better software and built-in quality assurance. At the forefront, at first, were Netscape and its Navigator browser. When Netscape began to go away, Mozilla's Firefox took over. Who needed application software when you could do so much on a browser?
But somewhere, someone started pulling at the loose thread on the browser model of software development. Web standards haven't always adapted quickly enough.
Arguments between ISVs and competing interests have escalated (as evidenced by the current fracturing of browser-based video technology.) And then Apple unleashed the App Store model on the world.
As of Jan. 20, Apple is running a counter on its Web site showing how the market is closing in on downloading its 10 billionth app from its app store. You don't get to 10 billion of anything by accident (unless you're talking about government deficits, but that's a discussion for another forum.)
Here are a few reasons why this is happening, and why App-based solutions are strengthening in the marketplace while browser-based solutions are stuck in the mud:
StandardsGoogle is ditching support for the H.264 video codec in favor of WebM. Microsoft has at times tried to hawk Silverlight on us like a salesman pitching term life, wooing us away from Adobe Flash. And HTML5? M'eh. The endless battles and standards-fracturing means that developers could invest countless hours and dollars building a browser-based solution, only to have a standards battle turn that investment into a loss.
What's the solution for these developers? Pick a platform, write an app, set it and forget it.
As we see with Firefox 4 and Mozilla's ugly attempts at bringing Firefox Mobile to the broader market, extending full browser functionality to smart devices isn't going very smoothly right now. It might be the fault of companies like Apple refusing to work with developers of these browsers. It might be developers' inability to port to different platforms. The market doesn't seem to care who might be at fault, however.
Forward-looking companies, like Salesforce.com, saw the move to mobility happening a long time ago and began aggressively developing apps that could deliver their solution whether it was on a browser, the iOS platform or something else. The same can be said of the music service, Pandora. "Cross-device" is the new "cross-platform."
QA, Delivery, and Deployment
Here is the tricky part for businesses and the solution provider channel. No CIO wants software on company assets that could compromise security or productivity. Value-added resellers, whose job it is to provide secure, productive solutions, now have one more problem to guard their customers against: unwanted app-store apps on business devices.
App stores, with ample supply of both free and paid software, can be an open door to what CIOs and VARs are trying to keep out.
At the same time, many may want the simplicity and ease of client-device deployment that app stores and online marketplaces can provide. The QA that Web standards once provided may now be provided by companies like Apple, which vet apps before letting ISVs sell them in their stores.
There will be a transition period for the B2B space between the legacy model of software deployment and a hybrid one that includes the app store model, but there will be a transition. Along the way, the additional flexibility will be welcomed by those businesses and VARs who opt-in, and the additional QA will be welcomed by all of them.
“Point-and-click” is being overtaken by “touch.” “Write once, run anywhere” is being overtaken by “there’s an app for that.” Apps come with you to the party. Browsers stay back in the office or your parents’ basement.
Browsers will never die, the same way that tape-backup will never die. But with apps, the party is just getting started.