Monday, November 27th, 2006

Google Docs and Spreadsheets Team: Web native matters

Category: Editorial

Richard MacManus linked to a Gizbuzz interview of Jen Mazzon and Sam Schillace of the Google Docs and Spreadsheets team (both ex-Writely).

Nothing ground-breaking, but it is interesting to hear about their thoughts on Ajax:

Browser compatibility issues – like the early graphic Web

Next was a question about browser compatibility issues and how that affects D&S – and indeed the future of rich web applications. Sam responded that “it is definitely an issue […] these apps are all cutting edge – it kind of reminds me of the early days of the graphical web, when you couldn’t count on the browsers to render tables correctly […]”.

But he thinks it’s “just growing pains” and it’ll take about a year to sort those issues out.

Also on the question of whether Ajax is better than Flash and Laszlo etc, Sam thinks that Ajax is currently more web native.

It’s about being Web native, not cloning desktop apps

Later in the interview, Jen stresses that they’re “not trying to clone desktop apps”. They want to be familiar to people, “but we’re trying to do something that’s actually more native to the Internet, more usable on the Internet.”

Sam says they’ve had a lot of feedback that people like the fact they’re not trying to copy desktop apps. He said “copying the existing stuff just feels irrelevant to us – we’re not trying to copy, we’re trying to re-invent.”

Both Jen and Sam re-affirmed that collaboration and sharing is their main focus with D&S, as well as being web native – rather than trying to compete on features with desktop apps.

If you were asked “why is Ajax a better fit for some apps than Flash?” what would you say? Do you agree? Does the open web matter? What if Adobe fully opened up their format?

Posted by Dion Almaer at 9:25 am

3.9 rating from 16 votes


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IMO web native is hugely important. Opening Flash wouldn’t help much.

Comment by Paul M. Watson — November 27, 2006

I’m starting to see some of the value (or lack thereof regarding information) in using Flash for “applications” eg. e-mail and so on, online, where “openness” is not important – But when it comes to providing valuable, searchable, indexable information the way Tim Berners-Lee envisioned it, nothing currently beats HTML. “The web is not a movie.” ;)

If Flash were to become more open and indexable, and HTML or a similar XML-based language was used for content in movies (which were also text based and human-readable, not binaries), that could be quite valuable. Now while less “grokable” however, the current compilation aspect to SWFs (especially the forthcoming Flex 2 etc.) differentiates it from HTML in other good ways – ie. performance, right?

Comment by Scott Schiller — November 27, 2006

When architected & implemented correctly, Web-native apps can be hugely more accessible and adaptable to mobile applications than can a graphic-centric approach such as Flash. Sure, the majority of Ajax apps aren’t unobtrusive and don’t degrade gracefully, but only due to the developers’ limited vision and/or discipline. I can take the time to build an Ajax system on XHTML that lets a user navigate around without JavaScript, if necessary; Flash just won’t do that.

Comment by ARWolff — November 27, 2006

I think Flash vs. Ajax is a false dichotomy that will fade over time. Some Ajax apps will use Flash for some features, such as movies, sounds, and local storage; Flash will continue to morph into a kind of Ajax/DHTML, such as Flash’s old Actionscript 1.0 being dropped in favor of JavaScript.


Comment by Brad Neuberg — November 27, 2006

You have to make differentiate between the type of application. A lot of internet applications are in fact built for intranet use to solve deployment and upgrade issues. Therefore it make quite sense to have them as similar to desktop apps as possible. Real internet applications addresed to end users should keep the web native feeling. This would also follow the usability guideline from Jakob Nielson who says, that apps should also work the way the users are expecting it to work.

Comment by Robert Schmelzer — November 27, 2006

“If you were asked “why is Ajax a better fit for some apps than Flash?” what would you say?

Probably something like “Because some browser-based applications don’t have high development costs and only need to refresh text and images from the server.” Does that seem good to you?


Comment by John Dowdell — November 27, 2006

I’d love to use flash where appropriate and ajax/html for the rest. But the flash delopment tools cost at least £500 and I’m not spending that for non-commercial sites. So flash it not possible anyway.

Comment by John Burton — November 28, 2006

I agree with Arwolff, the coparison between Ajax and Flash is incorrect. We just need to specify which technology is better for one part of web apps, and which for another. Then, we will make gains from both of them.

Comment by Sergey Kim — November 28, 2006

You don’t have to buy the flash development tools if you don’t want to. You can use open source environments like flashdevelop (or if you’re on another platform than windows, mtasc + swfmill + eclipse), combined with one of the open source GUI toolkits, like aswing (a flash reimplementation of java swing). has a long list of replacement tools for various elements of the flash development pipeline.

Admittedly, the flash IDE is more user-friendly, but that’s what makes it worth paying for it.

Comment by Joeri — November 28, 2006

“Why is Ajax a better fit for some apps than Flash?”

Building applications are all about identifying requirements, skill sets of the team, licensing, etc… For any single application, given the right team and no licensing issues; both flash and Ajax would be a reasonable solutions. Issues tend to arise as teams look to build more than one application (Typical scenario in an Enterprise or SI) or revise the applications over time to meet the needs of new requirements (Typical scenario in all applications).

So how do you accommodate this?

By using a platform that is client-side VM independent. Flash tries to be a VM, similar to .NET, Java and the Browser. Flash has a place in the Application Stack. You just shouldn’t limit technologies decisions to such a binary choice, Flash or Ajax. Look at Google Analytics, the charting is flash. Would it be wise to replace the flash charting with pure Ajax charting? Probably not, at least yet, and the flash charts are awesome. But as a single page Flex application, that wouldn’t strike the right balance either.

Providing a platform that allows developers to build applications that can be deployed in any client-side technology removes the need to choose, and leaves the ability leverage any each where appropriate.

What if Adobe fully opened up their format?

Openness has several aspects: the platform, tooling and community involvement. Even before Java was open-sourced it had the JCP to allow contributions, Flash does not and Java allowed for external tools in the development of applications, Flash does not. Coming out and saying we open-source would be valuable but wouldn’t change anything, it still wouldn’t be native.

Comment by Robert Buffone — November 28, 2006

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