The seven ordeals of the web application developer

There is no point living in denial.  Web business applications are here.  You cannot live with them.  You cannot live without them.  But they are here.  So let us make the best out of this “less than ideal” situation.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

These are the immortal words of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats from a poem titled the Second Coming.   For those developers who learned their craft on the desktop and helped develop a digital universe that has the desktop firmly at its centre, Cloud Computing must be a reminder of these stark words.

The centre has shifted to the user who controls the time and space in a vast new digital universe where all things are connected.  Developers who seek their fortune in this new universe must face and survive seven ordeals and success will only favour those who come prepared.

Let us reflect upon these seven ordeals starting with . . .

1. The First Ordeal:  User experience

On the desktop the user interface is responsive and changes dynamically with smooth transitions and, more importantly, in a consistent and predictable manner.  For business applications, this is an imperative.  Users who regularly use applications designed to help them carry a task adapt to this predictable behaviour and the computer becomes an extension of their brain and integral to their cognitive processes.

In the browser, the user interface responds inconsistently and transitions are uneven.  This may be tolerable for non-interactive content like a press release, but it turns the use of interactive business applications into a poor experience.

Imagine driving a car with a manual transmission. When you use the stick to shift gears, you expect the gears to shift, every time, as soon as you release the clutch.  What would you do if the transmission took its time to shift, the delay was unpredictable and from time to time it told you “404 – Gear not found!”?

Web application developers must address this problem and ensure that their applications provide a user experience similar to the desktop.  Many solutions have been tried but most are proprietary in nature and the very antithesis of community developed standards that are the foundation of the web.  The Ajax technique which is purely based on HTML, XML and JavaScript is the only exception so far and has achieved spectacular results.  The introduction of HTML5 and its Canvas, among other enhancements, will no doubt enhance Ajax techniques and, hopefully, lead us out of the plug-in trap.

However, Ajax presents the developers with new challenges in complexity and productivity and in turn, it raises the bar for vendors of professional programming tools and IDE’s.   Attempts to re-engineer desktop class RAD tools for the web have so far failed to yield acceptable results.  The challenge is far greater than we first thought and complexities of web development demand a new paradigm in IDE design. We must move beyond simply matching features of desktop tools such as Delphi and Visual Basic in order to help web developers overcome the ordeal of user experience.  No one is there yet but the game is afoot!

To be continued . . .

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