Google Calendar is great, but you can’t consult or change it while you’re sitting on a plane. The same is obviously true of online mapping, financial, social, and entertainment programs. For all its virtues, Writely is of no use at all if you happen to be having connection problems. This is going to sound like a convenient embellishment, but the records of my service provider, RCN, will prove that it’s true: for the last two hours, I have had a complete connection failure, so I’ve had to reconstruct this article from my “real” hard-disk files. (I am back with Writely now.) If you have any kind of life whatsoever, for several hours per day you will not be sitting at a desktop or laptop computer with a broadband connection. At those moments, Web 2.0 is for all practical purposes Web 0.0. Which brings us to…
Evolution still has a way to go. A crucial part of Homo conexus remains gravely underdeveloped – and as long as that’s the case, all these systems will fall short of their potential. The missing adaptation is a way to get information from the Internet when you have a signal but don’t have a keyboard. This is the dreaded realm of the handheld device.
Anyone who has watched 24 knows how PDAs ought to work. On the show, Jack Bauer is constantly having elaborate data sent to his PDA. The two huge limitations of real-world PDAs – that their screens are small and bad and their keyboards even smaller and worse – don’t trouble him at all. Today’s mobile handheld systems are very well adapted for voice communication and are usable enough for text messages and e-mail. But when you have to go to the real Web for information or services, as you must for many Web 2.0 applications, it’s usually not worth the effort.
Most is not all: or, the virtues of the short tail. Many Web 2.0 ventures are based on the familiar principle of the “long tail,” popularized by Wired’s editor in chief, Chris Anderson: that is, the idea that an accumulation of tiny, particular niche audiences can amount to a very large collective market. This is especially true for retailers (Amazon, eBay), portals (the updated Yahoo), and social networks (MySpace), and it explains the success of targeted advertising (Craigslist, Google AdSense). But those aspiring to use Ajax to displace desktop applications and services often employ an intriguingly “short tail” approach.
For years, software makers, notably Microsoft, have struggled with the bloatware dilemma. A small fraction of their users want specialized, elaborate new functions; moreover, the software makers themselves need to keep adding features to justify upgrades. But the more niche features they add, the more complex, buggy, and expensive their programs become, and the more off-putting they can seem to most users.
The likes of Voo2do, iOutliner, Google Calendar, and the new Google Spreadsheets have solved this problem by ignoring it. They do most things that most users of their desktop counterparts want – but almost nothing that the specialized user might. Writely lets me make bullet-point lists and choose from several fonts – but I can’t add footnotes or easily change the column layout. Google Spreadsheets lets me enter formulas and values as easily as Excel does, but it cannot produce graphs or charts. And the online to-do list systems lack some of the more sophisticated features I like in BrainStorm and Zoot.
The result of this short-tailism might be a curious new “long-tail” division between online and desktop applications: the free online apps will be for ordinary users under routine circumstances, while for-pay desktop apps may become even more bloated and specialized for high-end users. And to return to the original Dodgeball principle, there will be applications suited to users in each stage of life.