Will the Cloud Lead Me Away From the Mac?



There’s no doubt that cloud computing is a growing trend. All you have to look at is the popularity of netbooks to see that many people nowadays will be quite happy with a computing device that gives them access to the web, and not much else.

I’m certainly part of this trend, as I write this story I have the following web-based applications open on my Mac:

What surprises me isn’t how many web apps I’m accessing, but how few native Mac applications I am using to access these services. I am using Tweetie to access Twitter, Evernote has it’s own native Mac application and I use BusyCal to access Google Calendar. Apart from that, all of these web services are being accessed either via Safari (Facebook and Lexulous), or via Site Specific Browsers (SSBs), which means I’m using the naked, if you will, web interface for the application.

Two years ago I never would have done this. I actually wrote a whole blog post, on a now defunct blog, about how I eschewed web-based applications in favor of native Mac apps because I wanted a Mac-like experience. As such I used Mail.app to get my email, NetNewsWire for RSS feeds, Omni Focus for tasks, etc. Nowadays I use web-based apps for all those functions.

There were several factors that led me to this place. First of all web based apps have become better in terms of user experience, in some cases even exceeding, in my opinion, the user experience of the native Mac alternative, for example Gmail versus Mail. Although Google’s web apps aren’t particularly pretty, they are well thought out, and some other web apps are almost elegant, like Remember the Milk.

The iPhone has also been a driving force towards web-based applications because they are more likely to offer the ability to easily synchronize over the air. For example, I would love to use Things as my main task manager, but the simple reality is that I never remember to go through the rigamarole of synchronizing via Wi-Fi. If I can’t sync over the air with my iPhone, then I don’t want to use it on my Mac.

Probably the most important driving force, however, has been features. Google Reader is an excellent example of this. I recently went over several native Google Reader clients for the Mac, but despite this range of choices, I’m still using a site specific browser to access Google Reader. Why? Because none of these applications offer the feature set that the actual website does, and I actually use all of those features. I’ve faced similar problems with native Mac apps that purport to give you access to Facebook or WordPress.

The reality is that many web applications have reached the point of complexity that building a third-party client for them becomes very difficult, especially on the desktop where users will demand feature parity, or something close to it. Unless a company is building their own client, such as Evernote, or the service is exceedingly simple, such as Twitter, desktop clients are constantly going to be playing a losing game of catchup.

What all this means for users like myself is that more and more of my computing experience is moving away from the Mac and to the web (subscription required). I love the Mac, I love the combination of stability, elegance, ease of use and power Apple’s computers offer me, but I have to admit that I’m taking less advantage of the platform than I have in the past, and unless something drastic changes, that trend is only going to continue.

Apple doesn’t seem to be making aggressive moves towards building better support for web applications into the operating system, and this may be a dangerous mistake. Someday in the not to distant future something approaching 100 percent of the average user’s computing is going to move online, and when that happens Apple may find itself flat footed in a new world, and I may find myself looking for a computing platform better suited for my actual use.

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