Anyone that’s used Windows XP in the last 10 years knows about the venerable Documents & Settings folder. It’s essentially a user-centric dumping ground where your “documents” (i.e. just about any asset you create) and your application-specific settings were stored.
Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that. You couldn’t ever just grab your documents and settings folder and just drop it on a new PC and hope things will go well. Installed applications have free reign to store their settings just about anywhere, including the system registry and other folders.
Part of the appeal of cloud-based hosted applications like Gmail and the Zoho suite is that they not only store your applications, but your data (“documents”) and state (“settings”) in one convenient place. It’s a pretty compelling selling point. Let’s take a look at each facet of what is really “stored” online.
The Application Itself
Let’s face it. It’s far more convenient to visit a URL than get hold of a CD installation disc and install. When we install software locally, It ends up in only one place (instead of everywhere) and updates are cumbersome at best (via patches and updates).
Unfortunately, online applications aren’t anywhere near the power and richness of desktop applications. Think Adobe Illustrator. Illustrator is a powerful and abundantly rich desktop application. It’s safe to say that a Web-based equivalent of Illustrator is years away. Even Web-based spreadsheet applications can’t compete with the power and speed of their desktop counterparts. So while Web-based applications are great, they’re just not their yet. Even applications like Google Spreadsheets feel slow and crippled compared to their desktop siblings.
Another convenience of online applications is that they keep track of your created assets like spreadsheets or documents online. This is also very convenient. You can easily pull up your assets without lugging your laptop around. There really is no reason to have the assets you create located in one offline location. This is one of the most appealing aspects of online apps: my stuff is available to me wherever I am.
Still, as mentioned above, I’m still married to certain desktop applications. Despite the ability to store my created assets in the cloud, the disparity between online and desktop apps is very wide. My own solution is to use a smart syncing platform like Dropbox or Microsoft’s Live Mesh. Both of these tools nicely sync up specially designated folders to the cloud. Everywhere I go, I’m able to access my stuff and I still get to use my heavy duty desktop applications like Microsoft Word and Photoshop.
Here’s the most serious missing link for desktop applications. Regardless of which machine I’m sitting down on at home or at work, my copy of Illustrator should boot up and have my palettes, my toolbars and my own specific settings ready to go. Today this is nearly impossible because desktop applications today are not designed to abstract out and isolate their settings to a more portable state.
While my documents are syncing nicely everywhere, I still find myself configuring and reconfiguring toolbars on my different installations. It’s not an overly complex tweak to make settings portable, but software developers need to buy into it.
My Portable Hack
One of the coolest hacks I’ve been able to pull off is to drop my portable version of Firefox into a Live Mesh folder. Since everything is self-contained under the install folder, my Firefox state syncs up on my three devices. My awesome bar, bookmarks, current set of tabs, even the add-ons I install sync up seamlessly across all my devices. It’s pretty great.
The Right Recipe
I would love to see more desktop software developers think about settings differently and more portably. We’ve solved the documents problem for the most part, but the wall still exists between the way state is treated online versus the desktop. There are a few rare exceptions. Digsby, a universal IM client, stores your settings on their server. Instead of setting up your four or five individual IM accounts every time you install it, you simply log into your Digsby account and your settings are downloaded instantly. Smart.
Beyond documents and settings, this is about bridging the chasm between desktop software building and web software building. Eventually, the two cultures need to realize they’re addressing the same set of problems. It’s not an either/or scenario. It’s about leveraging the strengths of each to come up with something better than either can deliver alone.
[Ed. – I apologize for the use of the ‘”2.0” label in the title of this post. I know the term has been beaten to death, but I’m simply not ready to give it up. Hey, at least I didn’t jump on the cornball 3.0 bandwagon.]