Lever and fulcrum

John Montgomery has been exploring AJAX-style technologies and wonders -- rightly -- what the fuss is all about:

Jon's posts got me to thinking about why we (that's you and me -- Web users) are OK with degraded user experiences. I mean, for years we had great desktop applications to do things like calendaring and email and even mapping software. Then came the initial Web, where HTML 3.2 and some JavaScript meant that Web apps just couldn't be as nice as local apps. And now we're all very excited about things like Evite, Gmail, and Google maps. But compare Google Maps to Streets and Trips, which I did recently, and the experience with S&T is much better. Same with Outlook vs. Gmail (usually, anyway). [A View from Elsewhere]
Maybe it's time to recalibrate what we mean by "user experience." When I adopted Gmail, what most impressed me was the way its developers had crafted a responsive and wonderfully convenient Web-based application. But when I began using Google Maps, and shortly thereafter hacking it, I saw its AJAX underpinnings as simply a means to an end. What really mattered was how this application invited me to bring my own data. Others took up that invitation too, and here is one measure of the outcome:

Google search results for:
"mappoint hacks"0
"streets & trips hacks"0
"terraserver hacks"1
"google maps hacks"3430

When Adrian Holovaty's chicagocrime.org debuted, I was delighted but not surprised. I'd already come to expect this kind of thing. What did surprise me, though, was to see this Associated Press story in my local smalltown newspaper last Saturday!

Over the weekend, Paul Kedrosky felt an earthquake. I was reminded of James Snell's Google Maps earthquake viewer, which showed me a whole cluster of quakes:

Nice! Now consider what James' hack did not require:

That's partly because all of the pieces James needed were lying around on the Net, and had been written about in ways that enabled him to discover and apply them. But it's also because the Google Maps "user experience" -- degraded though it may be when compared to native Windows alternatives -- affords much more leverage.

Years ago an early reviewer of Visual Basic 1.0 (Steve Gibson, I think) said that VB increased the software developer's leverage by an order of magnitude. That was true, but you can't keep going back to the same well. In a column on Google Maps I wrote:

Developers haven't flocked to TerraServer. What's Google's secret? Web DNA and no Windows tax.
Responding in email, Jim Gray reminded me that TerraServer does offer SOAP interfaces [1, 2]. And yet those interfaces demonstrably have not inspired a flurry of innovation. Why not? Microsoft is obliged to portray the Web-based user experience as a dead end that can never be improved, and Windows as the only way forward. So it's going to be Visual Basic and client/server all over again: Windows applications will control the user experience; servers will dish out the data; developers will connect the dots.

But if the Web has degraded our experience in some ways, it has utterly transformed it in others. Nowadays we're not just using the Web, we're colonizing it. Data isn't stuff we only consume, we also produce it. And the user experience doesn't live only on our PCs, it must roam freely and be shareable with everyone. These are the sources of the next tenfold gain in leverage.

AJAX isn't the best imaginable lever. It is, however, sitting on the right fulcrum.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2005/06/14.html#a1250