On The Road To Nowhere?

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Back in June, when I signed my life away and made my pact with the blue badge, it seemed like a good idea to restrain my exuberance in one or two areas. Wandering aimlessly around the world attending conferences, and pleading with Web site editors to buy my articles, were obvious first steps. And a quick sanitization of my own Web site seemed like a good idea - trying to tempt any unwary dev shop I could find to give me a job was probably not a good idea either. And, in particular, losing the PowerPoint presentation that grumbled about the lack of inspiration and direction in the Web world seemed like a really positive move. Especially as it was robust enough to need words with asterisks in.

Then, at the p&p Summit a few weeks ago, I watched Billy Hollis do a wonderful presentation that echoed so many of my own subversive tendencies. His session, called "Drowning in Complexity", revealed through audience participation how few people actually know about, understand, and use the huge number of new technologies coming out of Microsoft. I mean, I work in a fairly small division and I have only a passing familiarity with many of our products, never mind the mass of stuff coming out of the many other divisions.

But what really made me smile were his comments on the way we seem to be piling more and more stuff on top of a document collaboration mechanism that was already revealing its failings way back in the late 1990's. Yep, what on earth are we still doing playing with Web browsers when we're trying to implement rich, interactive, and accessible user interfaces for business applications? I have absolutely no intention of getting involved here in a discussion of Flash, Chrome, and the like. What I want to know is: where is the next Tim Berners-Lee?

Over the years, I've bored almost to distraction a significant number of people by rambling on about how we need something new to decouple our dependence on HTML and Web browsers, where everything you want to do seems to involve inventing some new kludge, or several hundred lines of JavaScript. I mean, if you were given a choice of any language to use when developing your next major application, would you choose JavaScript? And run it inside an interface that stops you using many useful key combinations, allows the user to view a cached copy of the previous screen in your carefully crafted process flow any time they like, and prevents you using many of the obvious UI niceties you expect in a "proper" application?

And where is the comprehensive managed security framework that allows you to properly interact with the hardware and the user? Or the mechanism to handle data locally in a sensible way? Or, and here comes that awful cliché, "write once, run anywhere". It seems that the only reason we battle on with Web browsers is because there is no other "write once" that does "run anywhere". Or is there? PDF seems to work fine, and it was developed by a single manufacturer. You can use a nice lightweight (and free) PDF reader such as Foxit, or you can use the full-blown (dare I say "overblown") real thing from Adobe. And there's no shortage of tools you can buy to create and edit PDFs, or do most anything else you want with them.

So I guess this diatribe has finally reached the point where I can no longer avoid the "S" word. Here at Microsoft, we're hiding it behind the exciting concept of the Rich Internet Application (RIA). But at the heart of it are, of course, XAML and WPF. One of the announcements by Scott Guthrie at the Summit was the aim of continuing convergence of Silverlight and WPF to achieve the "write once, run anywhere" nirvana. WPF that runs on a desktop, on a mobile device, on a tablet, and everywhere else as well; and with full support for ink, stylus, touch, rich media, and interaction with all the bells and whistles of the hardware.

Where I still have an issue is with Silverlight. Yes, it gives us a bridge to the ubiquitous Web browser to maximize reach. But we can do pure WPF and XAML in a host on Windows, just like we do with PDFs. Maybe the fact that WPF and XAML come from Microsoft will mean that it can't get the support from other platform manufacturers and the open source community that HTML did so many years ago. So are we forever condemned to using another browser plug-in? Another layer of "stuff" on top of the already inappropriate "stuff"?

There's an old story about the guy driving through some small village in the middle of nowhere, and he stops to ask a local yokel the way to his planned destination. The yokel replies "If I was going there, I wouldn't start from here". I just hope that we haven't gone so far down the road to that dead-end village that we can't actually get to where we want to be.

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On The Road To Nowhere?