Here’s another article I wrote for my site Process Magic, back in 1998. In it I predicted a few futures, some of which ended up coming true, and some of which came out somewhat differently! Regardless, it’s fun to think back to 12 years ago (when I was first getting into information technology and computer science) and to remember the atmosphere of those exciting days when everyone believed the sky was truly the limit, before the dotcom market crash. It was an enlightened time!
Could the next step be the complete integration of software and network?
A good friend of mine works as a network administrator for AltaVista, Digital’s heavily trafficked computer-driven Internet search engine. While speaking with him the other day I mentioned that, through the career I’ve chosen and through the various self-studies I’ve put upon myself, I’ve been banking on the eventual merging of software design and web design. He asked me to explain further what I meant by that, but at the time I was unable to adequately describe to him what is for the most part a gut feeling.
Presently, the realm of software design seems to be strongly leaning toward becoming a highly net-centric entity. Software conglomerates have been creating a wealth of tools to take advantage of unlimited connectivity between employees and customers. Email and databasing seem to be the killer apps of networking software; these applications give a user access to people and data, respectively. In fact, email and databasing applications could theoretically be the only applications available over a network and all users would still be able to accomplish tasks to their greatest potential. Word processors and spreadsheets could be used to create documents offline which would then be sent via email to other users for discussion, or created offline and then placed on the network’s database for review and use by whoever has the correct privileges. This sounds good, but there’s an intermediate step (the transfer of the file from where it was originally created to wherever it eventually needs to go) that can be eliminated!
What must be remembered is that the World Wide Web is essentially what amounts to a colossal multi-user database. The various bits of data are stored as web pages (in .HTML format) and as pictures (in .GIF or .JPG format). As most work done today is not in these aforementioned formats, links must be provided for users to download documents in other formats onto their machines. After having done so, they may then access these documents – but only if they have the correct version of the program that created the documents (for example, Microsoft Word must be installed on a user’s machine in order to access a Microsoft Word file, and so on). This lack of standardization is one reason why the World Wide Web is not an efficient forum to conduct most major business.
One proposed solution to this problem is to translate everything (documents, spreadsheets and whatever else) into the .HTML file format. However, after having worked extensively with the .HTML file format, I can tell you that it’s not the most efficient format to store documents in. It’s cumbersome, and it uses a slew of roundabout ways to translate packets of words, numbers and other objects into what looks good on a web browser – and even then the document frequently falls short of looking the way it did when it was designed in its native format. In light of this, my suggested solution is to go at it from the other direction – instead of altering documents to fit the browser, alter the browser to fit the documents.
So, instead of:
I am suggesting:
If documents were stored in their native file formats on the database (in this case, the World Wide Web), they could be viewed and, with proper privileges, altered by the user right on her machine – in fact, right there in the web browser. She would never have to go anywhere else to edit files – instead of loading up Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel to edit her document, she might pop up a Word Toolbar or an Excel Toolbar and dock it with the other toolbars on her web browser. What’s more, if she wanted to, she could load both toolbars at once and work with a Word document in .DOC format and an Excel spreadsheet in .XLS format right on the same web page. And she could do this easily, because both files are in their native formats.
It sounds a lot simpler than it probably is. Creating a web browser to read multiple file formats? At first blush, it sounds like an impossibility. However, different tools can manipulate different files without the files themselves ever having to leave the browser window. One question that comes to mind: what if the user doesn’t have Microsoft Word on her machine? Can she still see the file? Well, she can, if companies create plug-ins for read-only access to their file formats. And other organizations, such as the AltaVista of the future, can create search engines that will rove through internal and external databases of various file formats to find whatever information is requested in whatever file format it’s in – the bounds are limitless.
The end product is the seamless integration of database (web browser) and software (the tools that create what gets put on the database). The user never need know that she’s flipping from file format to file format as she clicks her way through the database in search of the information she needs. Everything is done in the viewer, even creation and edits – with the help of toolbars that are docked alongside the browser’s toolbar. HTML will remain the simple and efficient language that it is, creating sensually engaging home pages and advertisements, but the real work will be done in much more viable file formats – the native file formats of the tools themselves. And this formula would work best if the browser itself did not belong to any one corporation but rather to a professional organization of software producers – that way, companies could easily create tools for it without the fear of violating copyrights or having any one company dominating the entire industry. The companies that create the best tools for the job will be the companies that thrive in this scenario.
So what is this piece of software of which I speak – this mega-browser with toolbars and other proprietary plug-ins used to access and edit any file on any database, all connected together and bounded only by user privileges and software licenses? Well, I think Bill Gates may have been right in his assumptions that in the future there will be a single program that controls the user experience from the moment she logs on until the moment she logs off. I think that, in a sense, this program will be what we now call the operating system.