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Analysis: the future of web-based apps

Work and play online

In 2006 we saw a plethora of web-based services launch that mimic desktop applications but work entirely within a browser window. The benefits are clear: web-based applications mean you don't have to worry about storing apps on your hard drive, so you no longer have to maintain and update them. You can access work from wherever you are, provided you have a web connection and many web-based tools are free, unlike the ones you install on your PC.

"This is a fundamental architectural shift," said Google chief executive Eric Schmidt at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco in October. "The network is always going to be around; ...the [local] disk will be optional."

This trend will continue over the next few years, but applications will evolve to help users be more productive and to work effectively on the move, rather than just providing the same functions you'd find in a desktop application.

"Web applications are terrific for situations where you want to share and collaborate," says Google product manager Bret Taylor. "That's where we see the most benefit: for consumers planning the annual family reunion or a group of colleagues putting together a sales proposal."

Brandon Schauer, a design strategist, says the next phase of web applications will focus on practicality: "Things the rest of the world might have a reason to interact with, not just the Generation Y people who have time to click around," he says.

WeSpendMoney.com is a case in point - it stores people's financial information and lets them manage all their transactions online. It's something that's bound to attract hackers, but it's also a logical step for those who are comfortable managing their bank accounts via the web.

These web-based applications will quickly make their way on to mobile devices too. "At some point, applications as advanced as Google Earth will be able to run on devices as small as a cell phone," says Google's Bret Taylor. "Users will be able to search and collaborate more effectively no matter where they are."

Another category likely to become popular is 'workarounds' – a term Schauer uses to describe sites such as Kayak.co.uk. It aims to dramatically cut down the time needed to shop for airline tickets.

Another example is VideoEgg.com, which compresses video via a plug-in, so the film footage you want to share online isn't crippled by the fact you're stuck with a slow broadband upstream connection.

Social-networking sites such as MySpace will get more grown-up companions too, as people increasingly turn to the web to solve problems as well as to make friends. While Google Answers has fallen on deaf ears (Google cancelled the project in December), Yahoo's Answers service has found an audience and is a fair indication of the sorts of useful sites likely to continue to spring up. As much as anything, the web will continue to play to its key strength – connecting people from distant locations but with similar interests.

Music sites have already made a fair stab at this: Last.fm and Pandora.com ascertain your musical preferences and play songs from additional artists you might like. They will soon be followed by SoundFlavor.com. You can use such sites to find and play 'stations' created by others.

Analysis: the future of the internet


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