Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Web 2.0 reality check: Incompatibility

ThinkFree, a Web Office product, a couple of ZDNet commenters pointed out that one problem with ThinkFree is that it requires a Java download. Wrote mrichardson under the heading Strike one…:

"Thought that I would explore the "brave new world" of web products. To use the product I needed to install a newer version of Java and reboot my PC. Not very user friendly if I wanted to use this in multiple locations since I would have to perform this install and upgrade on every machine. If I'm going to start using a browser for all of my document creation I want it to be ubiquitous."

Then I came Users expect things to 'just work' across a post by Jeremy Zawodny from Yahoo, entitled 'Rethinking the Web OS from a user's point of view'. He in turn pointed to a Flickr post entitled 'Flickr is NOT MySpace compatible… please make a javascript free "Badge"'. Jeremy then made the point that this is the same kind of compatibility complaint "you might have heard 5 or 10 years ago about a desktop application" - for example whether some software app is compatible with your Mac, or PC. As he said:

"In fact, I never stopped to think about how, if, or when "normal" users might start to think about web sites (or services) in the same terms. I just assumed that would need to happen "later." Apparently that has already begun to happen."

Note that when Jeremy uses the term 'Web OS', he's referring to the 'Web as platform' theory in general - and not the specific web-based OS-like solutions that I've been reviewing recently. But he is right, there are issues of system compatibility to deal with in web software - just like we deal with for different types of PCs and indeed more recently different types of browsers.

I'm sure I don't need to remind you all of the browser incompatibility heartache that web designers had to put up with in the mid-to-late 90's and through to the first few years of this century. Those issues are somewhat better now that Microsoft has finally started to pay attention to browser technology again - IE7 is by early accounts more compatible with the latest web standards than its predecessors. Well, it could hardly have gotten much worse really…

So let's come full circle with this. A couple of months ago I wrote a post entitled Learning from past Web Office mistakes which brought up the incompatibility issue. As Anil Dash noted in the post that inspired mine, Web Office apps are basically incompatible with one another:

"…we don't have much beyond copy and paste right now. If I want to put a NumSum or JotSpot spreadsheet into a Writeboard document, I basically can't do it."

So incompatibility is all around us, even on the Web. Whether it's having to download the latest Java to enable your computer to use ThinkFree, or doing a workaround to paste Flickr pics into MySpace, or finding out a way to cut and paste from one Web Office app to another - it all requires extra work on the user's behalf and in some cases may not be possible.

As a commenter in Jeremy's post noted, users expect things to 'just work'. I guess no matter what platform you use - Web or desktop or other - we continue to sing the Incompatibility Blues.