Thank God the people who make software have fallen out of love with the box. Boxes are meant to hold something more than a thin disk, a marginally thicker documentation pamphlet, and a whole lot of air.
Software makers aren't moving away from the air-filled cardboard box model of product distribution because they've been stricken with a renewed sense of environmental awareness. They're doing it because people have moved onto the Web. Instead of regarding the computer as the primary tool to get things done, many of us -- me included -- use our Internet-enabled computer to perform all sorts of tasks. In a way, a Web browser is now the second operating system, the killer app we use to get other applications, or to run embedded applications.
I use the Web to get shareware: after spending ten minutes and $20, I can have a superb desktop tool such as DragThing, by James Thomson (www.kagi.com), installed on my machine. I use the Web as an extended desktop. Just as Finder scours my hard drive for specific files, so Google.com works on my behalf to find Web sites on increased computer productivity.
The key difference between Finder and Google is that one lives on my hard drive and the other is housed someplace else. This is the defining factor for the next generation of software: it will not live on your hard drive. You will not own a unique version of a program. What you'll own is access to software programs that live across networks. You won't deal with lengthy installation processes; in order for these new apps to work, they have to be built on standard protocols such as XML, thus permitting anyone on any type of machine running any type of OS to use the application. Some of these programs will work on the shareware model: you download them and then pay about $20 to ease your conscience. But others will be available for a yearly or monthly subscription.
If you use the first generation of applications that call the Web home, you don't even need to buy access. Just go to the application's location and give a unique ID. This is how Blogger, an instant Web-site-production tool, works: simply visit the Blogger Web site, log in, and become an instant Web-site publisher without having to worry about infrastructure or technical chops. (See the table "Go beyond the Box.") Even if applications such as Blogger seem a bit far out, the changes in software they represent may have already hit you close to home. Just look at Adobe InDesign, the newest addition to the desktop publishing world. Adobe designed it specifically so new sets of features and general updates could be downloaded quickly via the Web.
Like all early technological innovations, Net-based software needs work. The advantages of locally installed applications sitting on your desktop lie in a certain uniformity of interface behavior and the ability to use the application when you're not connected to a network. We are already seeing a visual Tower of Babel as assorted Net apps battle to set the standard for look-and-feel. There's also always the danger that if a network-based application lives only on one node of a network and that node goes down, everyone's hosed.
These issues will be worked out, as will the inevitable security concerns and the residual software-user anxiety about leaping from CD-ROM to network ID. We will have to figure out where the data these programs manipulate and generate will be stored, too.
We have to solve these problems: they will not be going away. Web surfers now have a world of Web-based applications at their fingertips. The genie's out of the cardboard box, and he's set up a domain online. There is no going back to one disk, one box, one user.
A veteran of Wired Digital and the Web-design firm Metrius, LISA SCHMEISER is Macworld.com's senior editor.
Page 56 September 2000 www.macworld.com