The Status Quo Isnt

Feb. 5, 2008
Web Applications May Be the Next Big Thing in Computing. Are You Ready?

By Jeffrey R. Harrow

There’s no such thing as the status quo in technology. Elements of our customer solutions have remained essentially static for years at a time, yet the inexorable march of technology demands that we continually update the solutions to add value from newly available resources.

Moore’s Law is the easy explanation for this unrelenting push to change. We’ve been living with the exponential results of it for so long that it's now just part of our expectations. Yet it's more than the transistor-centric Moore's Law that's causing today's continuous upheaval; it's the positive feedback from the confluence—the melding—of many technologies that increasingly is changing all the rules. Take, for example, web applications, or web apps.


Robert Metcalf foresaw the idea of networked computers reaching a critical mass that would change everything, at least in terms of telecommunications. Metcalf’s law, just as important as Moore’s to our discussion, is this: "The value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system."

Now that law is spilling over into computers. It wasn't very long ago when each computer was an island unto itself, running things like mapping software, dictionaries and other knowledge-based programs from local data on CDs. Today a significant and growing percentage of the value of a computer is in its link to the Internet. Thanks to that link, your computer can access many more information resources, such as Google, Wikipedia, real-time currency converters, and so much more than it ever could as a stand-alone computer.  As “things” increasingly touch the Internet, all their value increases, just as Metcalf predicted—all of which leads to even more innovation potential.

For example, many websites now provide far richer results than they could from any stand-alone CD. Sites such as MapQuest, Google Maps and MSN's Maps & Directions take the location information we provide and not only process requests against their own web-based map databases (using the power of their computers, not ours), but they also incorporate data from many other sites, providing information such as real-time traffic reports, weather, construction areas, etc., into your map or directions.

Other web apps, such as Google's office suite, are trying to move us from loading applications onto our own computers to using those that actually reside and do their processing elsewhere. Our web browsers primarily provide the interface and show the results of the far-away work.

This is the beginning of a significant sea change from the PC computer-centric, applications-on-disk model of computing, yet it's occurring in such a subtle manner that it just seems like the natural order of things.

Not For Everything—Yet

Web apps often need to house and manipulate our data on their remote servers, which does require sufficiently fast connectivity. The Web's initial foray into graphics stretched dial-up modem bandwidth beyond its breaking point. Similarly, these new web apps will begin to require more bandwidth than we use for browsing today.

Consider the extreme case of web-based video editing. A typical cable broadband connection offers something like 0.5 megabits per second upload speed and 5 megabits per second download speed, a connectivity tsunami compared to dial-up modems that does work well for many of today's web apps. But editing video requires moving huge amounts of data. Suddenly our broadband connections aren't so broad at all.

For example, moving a DVD movie to a remote web app (not using additional compression, but with bit-for-bit fidelity to the original) is quite a task. A movie that fills a standard dual-layer DVD weighs in at around 9 gigabytes. Uploading that movie to a web app would take a day and a half! Later, downloading the result over our typical 5 megabits-per-second cable connection would take about four hours!

(It's astonishing, but even in this digital age, the best way to move movies' worth of data is by truck!! NetFlix uses UPS trucks to deliver 5 million DVDs each day. According to George Gilder's Nov. 30, 2007 “Friday Letter,” UPS moves "five petabits per day – as much as all U.S. Internet traffic put together." Who knew that the interstate highway would trump elements of the information highway?)

Today such data-intensive tasks (and perhaps your tasks) are not candidates for using web apps. But they will be. Just as graphics-based communications required upgrading our infrastructure from dial-up modems to cable or DSL-based broadband, future web apps will demand fiber (or some other equally robust channel). But that's hardly impossible since other countries are already deploying these.

Service Opportunities

Automation and control solutions can follow this path as well. What were once elegant customer solutions may now show the patina of time as new technological capabilities become available. Consider how web apps might enhance customer solutions; all the applications could reside and run on an always up-to-date web-based server that can access an extended information set. If it's you who provide this remote web app as a service, you can generate a continuing revenue stream!

Your web app could also mine data from disparate unconnected sources to present an improved picture of how a customer's operation might best be managed. Depending on customer needs, enhancements might include the integration of relevant real-time weather and traffic info, forecasts, real-time lightening observations, tornado warnings, power demands, even changing global economic indicators and currency fluctuation, to enable decision making by everyone from control operators through executives. And there are an unlimited number of other service enhancements but a thought away.

Of course, this vast amount of information could overwhelm any user. Yet a few years ago it might have seemed that paper maps and printed driving directions could never add weather, traffic info and the location of every Starbucks on your route in a meaningful manner. Today's communicative GPS receivers do this with aplomb.

Similarly, web apps supported by expanding bandwidth and ever-more information nodes internal to a customer, as well as out on the Internet, will provide opportunities for visionaries to simplify the display of valuable new information, making your solutions really stand out.

MapQuest and Google Maps changed the landscape for many uses of DVD-based mapping applications; web apps may do the same for previously stand-alone solutions.

How could your customer solutions be improved by using web apps? It's not a wave to ignore…

Jeff Harrow is the principal technologist at The Harrow Group. He can be reached at [email protected].