Computerworld (1996): The rise of web-based user interfaces

The jury is still out over whether having the web as a universal graphical interface for applications is a step forward or backwards. I started keeping track of the more notable examples on this page of my website (and haven’t touched it in years, sorry.) Clearly it isn’t just another pretty interface for all your applications, as I originally wrote this story for Computerworld back in June of 1996.

Some analysts aren’t thrilled about Web UIs: Alan Cooper, a user interface consultant in Menlo Park, Calif., thinks that “HTML has set computer programming back 30 years and is about the worst technology I’ve laid eyes on.”

Others are more positive: Fred George, who used to work on IBM’s user development for OS/2 and is now an independent consultant based in Boulder, Colo., says he is “glad to see that we have moved beyond the 1960s-era teletype-style user interface,” and has hopes that web technology will eventually catch up with the operating system graphical interfaces. And software developer Bruce Fram who runs his own Silicon Valley company called Relations Software, says “Web technology is the information mechanism of the 90’s. Application developers who are not using it as their primary end-user interface will be in the same position as scribes after the invention of the printing press.”

Just about every software category now has at least one instance of where a vendor has taken to the web: you can access calendars, groupware, email, and even 3270 terminal emulators via an ordinary web browser. And plenty of hardware products, including printers and routers, now come with their own built-in web server for management purposes.

There is an important cross-platform advantage for having web interfaces: software vendors can cancel their Mac and Unix development efforts and concentrate on figuring out new ways to shoehorn functions into HTML tags. And there is always the hope that webification will simplify training users on how to do things, since they just point at a link and click away rather than have to learn a new command syntax.

“Writing HTML interfaces means that software developers tend to develop to the lowest common denominator,” says Elizabeth Rosenzweig, a usability manager with Kodak’s Boston Development Center in Lowell Mass. That could be trouble, although certainly any graphical interface is better than the cryptic telnet command-line interfaces used to manage routers and other hardware devices.

The software side of things is harder to judge. Some products make a great deal of sense to webify: take network-based calendars, for example. B.W. (Before the web), you had to go through a messy synchronization step just moments before catching your flight out of town. Now one can leave the data on their servers and view it with their browsers, and more importantly, actually have a chance at keeping their calendars updated.

So the web has shifted the debate from whether Win16 or Win32s is the best programming interface — now we can argue whether HTML extensions from Netscape or Microsoft are better. Much more understandable by the common user, and much more fun to watch. But having all software go to the web user interface might hasten having an all-Windows world: since multi-platform apps can be supported by back-door HTML, developers have moved away from Everything Else and concentrated on Everything Windows.




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