Offline Applications & The Task Of Unlearning

The blogs and the mainstream press is all abuzz about Google Gears. One of the key differences between web applications and desktop applications is the ability to use them offline. With Gears, developers can now tap into an API that allows for local storage (via SQLLite) and syncing of activity without being connected to the Internet. Google Reader is one of the first applications to support Gears.
This was pretty much inevitable and it checks off yet another item that differentiates the web and desktop software. The Financial Times spins it as yet another step towards taking on Microsoft. I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification but the point is valid.
As we continue to see the line blur between desktop and web, an often overlooked challenge still exists: getting users to fully understand what’s changing and why it should matter to them. The desktop paradigm: files stored in folders that I can “take out”, work on and put away, is a very powerful one. Call it what you will, but the ability to control assets locally and then, at your discretion, pass them along others is a deeply-ingrained metaphor that works for most. Yes, there’s value in centrally storing a spreadsheet. But there’s also a cost in not really knowing where this asset lives. How do I give it to someone else? How do I delete it? How do I move it?
Of course, those of us well-versed in 2.0isms write these questions off as a failure to understand this “new way of doing things.” Not so fast. People understand the representation of a file. For just about everyone, a file – whether a spreadsheet or document or image has what I like to call “cognitive integrity.” In other words, it is clearly represented as its own “thing.” It has a name (i.e. the filename). It has volume (i.e. file size) and takes up something akin to physical space. These perceived characterstics, which seem silly to harp upon as we move towards an increasingly centralized utility computing world, are incredibly powerful. This is partly why I think PDF is still so pervasive today. It’s not only about a printable representation. It’s about an indisputable representation of something.
Today we sign up and just start doing stuff in a web browser. Files (if they’re still called that) don’t really move around as much. We just sort of collaborate or share them (sort of). They float in some perceived ether. Tools like Google Gears will help us work offline and it will make a lot of sense for syncing states in an application like Google Reader. But I’d argue that people really want files and folders. They want things in their hands and then they’ll send it elsewhere at their discretion.
It’ll be interesting to see how designers approach the challenge of helping users grasp and take advantage of the shifts that are occurring today. Before we embark on that path though, we should make certain the value is really there and that it outweighs the unlearning process that will inevitably have to occur.

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