In my search for some kind of memory-enhancing, panacean note-keeping application, I’ve had to confront again what is becoming an increasingly common conundrum: do I want a solution that lives on the desktop or on the network?
Despite the significant leaps forward seen in online applications in recent years — Google Docs and the 37signals suite of apps, to name just a few — I still find most of this stuff slower, less efficient and less integrated with the way I prefer to maintain my own personal information ‘cloud’ than desktop software.
Given the choice, I’ll almost always opt for the native speed of an application written in Cocoa, the ability to call it up with suddenness and satisfaction via Quicksilver or from the Mac OS X Dock, and seamless, peer-level cohabitation with the data stored inside my Mac OS X Address Book, iCal other local data resources.
Whether There’s Any There There
I also prefer the fact that data stored in a desktop application is available regardless of whether I can access the Internet at any given moment. This is an advantage that means a lot to me, though it’s also an idea that has often been dismissed by various forward-thinking interaction experts. They contend that we as users are detached from the network far less often than we might think, that even though today’s network access is far from pervasive, we’re all online enough by now that Web applications are as viable a solution for our needs as desktop software.
To be fair, in several months of happily using the online task manager Todoist, I can attest to that, at least in part. Storing my to-do items online has been much less problematic than I had expected; there have only been a handful of instances in which I’ve been without net access when I truly needed it, or when I’ve wished I had my data on the desktop with me while it’s been stranded online.
Nor have I had trouble with the one admittedly inarguable usage problem to which network-dependent applications have as yet no real answer(Adobe Air nothwithstanding): being stranded from one’s data while in flight. This frequently cited drawback is for me essentially chimerical; I just don’t do work on planes anymore, period. I refuse. Problem solved.
Still, I like desktop software better than online software. It’s not just faster, (marginally) more efficient and better integrated, but it’s also more fun and more creative. In conversation, my friend Amit Gupta has argued that we’re in a phase of human achievement in which software should be considered a kind of art, and I think that’s truer on the desktop than in the browser. There’s something engrossing and marvelous about, say, the Macintosh portmanteau launcher Quicksilver that makes the decorated directories sensibility of most Web applications pale in comparison.
Such esoteric boosterism aside, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m essentially conservative about this stuff. Desktop software has the potential to be wonderful, but in truth the reason it feels right to me is because it’s what I learned when I was learning to use a computer. Old habits die hard.
Meaning: it’s not my contention that there’s something inherent to the Web that forbids it from ever becoming as engaging as the desktop. It’s just my humble opinion that the desktop still outshines the browser. For now. There will be some amazing application design native to browsers in the coming years; anyone who’s used the almost absurdly capable online photo editor Picnik, for example, knows this. In fact, the day is fast approaching when it will no longer be particularly useful to draw a distinction between online and offline software, between the browser and the desktop. The future’s coming, just as surely as I keep getting older.