Buzz’s Blog: On Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web

Apr 19 2009   2:31AM GMT

There are Web apps and then there are Web apps.

Roger King Roger King Profile: Roger King

In our continuing series on Web 2.0/3.0 and the Semantic Web, we have looked at one simple, yet impressive Web application, called Evernote. There are significant advantages of Web apps; in particular, the application is available wherever you can get onto the Web, you don’t have to run and maintain complex desktop software, and your data sits on a (hopefully) secure and backed-up data server.

Web Apps.

We noted that some Web apps, including Evernote, are both Web-based and desktop-based. Seemingly, this might be a disadvantage, because now, the user does have to install and maintain the desktop version of the app. But, in exchange, you have two copies of your data, at different physical locations. You also can use the app when you are not on the Internet. And, as far as Evernote goes, the desktop app is very far from difficult to manage.

Let’s look at this a little closer. Not all Web apps are the same. One problem is that too many vendors feel compelled to brag about the Web capabilities of their projects, and so we have to be suspicious – especially when it comes to older applications that have been retrofitted with Web capabilities.

Let’s look at a few applications. Please keep in mind that the first two applications are not advertised as “Web apps”. I am describing them only as a way of categorizing the Web capabilities of applications in general.

Minimal capabilities: exporting to the Web.

Our first example is an application that runs on Macs and is very impressive. It’s called Curio, and is made by a company called Zengobi. It gives you a workspace to which you can append text notes, lists, images, video, and sound clips. It also supports diagrammatic mind-maps. It’s great for a wide class of brainstorming techniques from simple note-taking to sophisticated workflow planning. It’s all-in-one nature makes it a little imposing and chaotic at first, but it is actually quick to master – and then its freeform nature proves itself to be very powerful. It is also very elegant.

Curio’s Web capabilities are extremely limited, however. All you can do is output a Curio file as a fixed HTML page. It cannot be updated over the Web. For convenience, it can export a file directly to your “Mac” Web account, if you own one.

Modest, often tacked-on Web capabilities.

Another example application is Filemaker. (I am referring to their products called Filemaker Pro and Filemaker Pro Advanced, since they are what I have used in my classes as the University of Colorado.) I teach database management systems, and I can say lots of good things about Filemaker. It is a very quick and simply way to get a full-fledged, scalable, visually-pleasing desktop database up and running. I like it.

But its Web capabilities are typical of applications that have added Web capabilities long after the fact. What you can do with Filemaker is “publish” a database on the Web, and allow Web-based updating and searching. It in effect turns the machine hosting the database into a simple server. But most of Filemaker’s capabilities are not available via the Web interface. And, the database only exists on its original site. All data remains there.

Native, full Web capabilities.

So, what’s a true Web app? I’d say it is an application whose native interface is Web-based, and where all or virtually all of its capabilities are available via a browser. Evernote is a good example.

There is a fuzzy line between “websites” and “Web applications”, as we have previously discussed. And in fact, some people consider virtually all powerful websites to be Web apps. This includes Amazon, Blogger, and Wikipedia, as well as countless lesser-known websites.

And, with respect to the deliberately narrow criteria we’re using here, these applications are indeed Web apps.

So, what characteristics do we see in applications that are powerful, and have native, complete Web interfaces? They are likely to store data persistently in a serverized database management system like MySQL, and present the user with web forms to fill in, and return to the user dynamic Web pages populated from the database. A website that we might be willing to label “Web 2.0” would be one that is highly responsive and manages large amounts of data.

We might call it Web 3.0 if it also manages large volumes of continuous data (like audio and video), and presents to the user a highly multimedia web interface. But these terms are vague, and drawing lines between them is to a certain degree misleading and a distraction.

Perhaps something that might be a truly Web 3.0 characteristic is that the application, rather than just delivering up video and audio, uses a combination of multiple forms of media, in concert, to interact with the user. We looked at SMIL, an XML language that allows the user to build presentations that coordinate multiple forms of media, such as images, sound, and video. The SMIL programmer can arrange media on the screen, and specify how the various pieces of media will be displayed over time.

Glide: the Web-based desktop.

But let’s look at one very, very aggressive attempt at a true Web 3.0 application. It’s called Glide, and you can get yourself a free account. This application does not support any sort of desktop-based version, and so you do have to be online to use it. It also needs a very fast Internet connection, because of the wide variety and high volume of data it allows you to manipulate.

What’s Glide? It is advertised as “the complete mobile desktop solution”, and it provides a complete, virtual, web-based computer. With it, you can edit photos, draw diagrams, store media files, send and receive email, manage a calendar, manage video, write documents, even build a website – in other words, do almost everything a non-programmer might want to do with a computer.

Its interface consists of three main windows. One is a virtual desktop, with various applications ready to use; another is a portal where the user can access the Web and develop websites; the third is a virtual hard drive, where media and files created by the various applications can be stored and accessed.

Is this the way of the future? It completely frees a user from having to buy, install, and maintain complex, expensive applications, although you still need a computer with a browser to run it. One drawback is that none of its apps, as near as I could tell, can compete with the dominant desktop applications. It is not Photoshop, it is not Dreamweaver, and it is not MS Office Outlook. But its apps are not trivial: they do the job just fine. And the entire interface is simple and visually pleasing.

There is also a way to sync your files on your desktop with the files on the Glide servers, and their documents and spreadsheets are apparently compatible (to some degree) with Microsoft’s Word and Excel. But they apparently are not planning on creating any sort of hybrid web/desktop based product. Glide’s goal is to move us all toward the Web and away from our desktops.

The Glide servers seemed fast enough to me, by the way. That’s the big question. Can it be as responsive as a desktop computer? Well, it’s as fast as my Vista machine… But slower than my iMac.

Give it a try.

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