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Thursday, November 13, 2003

Scoble and Joshua Allen Take a Stab at the Rich Client Business Case

Robert Scoble posted some thoughts on the business case for rich client apps for businesses last week:

Too bad you missed the demo done by Merck. They saw enough business value in doing a rich client. They see that it'll save millions in the development of new drugs. Why? Because it lets them build apps that simply are impossible to build in a browser. We'll have a LOT more to say on the business justification behind this stuff, believe me.

Or, ask Amazon. They see that Longhorn experiences will increase revenues. They were up on stage during the keynotes too. Or Adobe. They see that their customers will be able to build new kinds of apps that simply are very difficult, if not impossible, to build today.

The business justification actually is very simple to make. If you really are interested in hearing more the Longhorn evangelism team would love to hear from you.

For applications that are impossible to build in the browser, it is clear that they must be built with a rich client. But what about information retrieval and database interaction apps. In Tim Bray's Web's the Place post he made the following point:

Here�s an overgeneralization which I think works. Computer applications, excluding games, fall into one of three baskets: information retrieval, database interaction, and content creation. History shows that the Web browser, or something like it, is the right way to do the first two.

I don't think Adobe or Merck disprove Tim's assertion. Amazon's example bring up some additional issues. At one level shopping is an information retrieval and database interaction app. However for retailers, the user experience is definitely a factor. How much of a factor and how it varies across different target audiences, product mixes and market positionings is a subject of continuing research and speculation.

Joshua Allen was also nice enough to reply. Before he got down to making the case, he made the following great point:

I think it's typical for developers to think from a code-centered perspective first, and it takes a certain amount of experience with the boring, bread-and-butter business apps before a developer realizes that the data is the only really important part of the application. Of course, there are still scenarios (and very important ones) where a code bias is warranted, but I don't believe these will ever account for the majority of what we do with computers.

My experience concurs, data-first. Joshua then makes the business case:

This brings up the question asked by Mike Sanders; what is the business model for rich client apps? The way I see it, there are some apps that simply could not be built without rich client, just as there are apps that require the distributed "grid" paradigms. CAD/CAM programs are the obvious example, BI clients are another. True, web-based applications are pretty successful value proposition for applications like forms-based data-entry, and I'm just as happy as the next guy that we no longer have to deal with silly overdesigned GUI for such apps. But no way am I going to want to use Matlab or SPSS through HTML. The fact that people have trouble imagining uses for rich client is more evidence that HTML has had a blinding effect on people's imaginations than evidence that there are a lack of such applications.

I don't think anyone said that there is no use for rich clients, just that the majority of corporate information retrieval, database interaction are best suited as browser-based application. What is the business case to use rich clients in those classes of applications?

It seems that Microsoft employees have come up a little short on their first attempt at making the business case for Rich Client Apps in database centric applications. But they have at least 2 years to make the case. The trouble is most businesses won't wait that long. This article Web Applications Rule the Enterprise shows that Microsoft is losing the battle:

SEPTEMBER 29, 2003 ( INFOWORLD ) - Web applications rule the enterprise. That's the indisputable conclusion to be drawn from this year's InfoWorld Programming Survey. Despite directives from Microsoft Corp. and others that developers abandon server-based HTML applications for fat desktop clients, the ease of "zero deployment" through the browser continues to win the day.

Only a fool what count Microsoft out. But only a fool would ignore what businesses are proclaiming loudly from their desktops - we want more browser apps now.