Google Answers Logo
View Question
Q: Desktop vs. Web applications ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   3 Comments )
Subject: Desktop vs. Web applications
Category: Computers > Internet
Asked by: klaus777-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 18 Jul 2006 06:05 PDT
Expires: 17 Aug 2006 06:05 PDT
Question ID: 747326
There is a heavy discussion going about web going to replace web
applications. Yet, beyond that discusion my personal observation is
that desktop applications have something that web applications do not
have, what is that? I belive this thing make people prefer desktop
applications over web applications.

Let me give you my personal example. I have an many email accounts
with different providers. For each of these accounts, I am able to
retrieve my emails  both using Thunderbrid and a Web mail client. Yet,
when I have access to my Thunderbird I always use it and never the web
mail client. Worst, when I have problem with Thunderbird (like now) I
notice that I check my emails less regularly. Thunderbird is set to
retrieve my emails every 2 minutes. With the web mail client I check
my emails every 10 minutes. Why? Can you identify the difference and
state it consisely?

One difference I just noticed (in the course of formulating this
question) is that Thunderbird manages all my email accounts (i.e. five
of them!). With web mail, I would need to go through each of them, log
in, etc. This is more cumbersome.

But beside this, is there any difference you can identify and document
on the user firendliness of desktop applications over web

There is one borrying argument that desktop applications GUIs are
richer than web application GUIs. I don't buy this argument; I don't
think it is the key point.

Help me solve this mystery?:-)

Subject: Re: Desktop vs. Web applications
Answered By: eiffel-ga on 18 Jul 2006 08:28 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hi klaus777-ga,

I think it's safe to say that web applications are not going to
completely replace desktop applications, just as the car hasn't
replaced the bicycle, television hasn't replaced newspapers, recorded
music hasn't replaced live music, etc. In every case there is a
"certain something" to ensure that the older technology will retain a
secure niche.

So what defines the niche that will remain for desktop applications?
To identify that, it helps to use the web usability factors identified
by Chris Loosley of E-Commerce Times:

  "To satisfy customers, a Web site must fulfill four distinct
   needs: availability, responsiveness, clarity, and utility.
   This list presents the four essential qualities in order of
   their significance..."

   E-Commerce News: When is your web site fast enough?

At first glance, it seems like desktop applications have the edge for
availability. After all, you can use your desktop applications even
when the web server is down (or if you are not connected to the
internet at all).

But there's more to it than that. You can't use your desktop
applications when you are anywhere other than at your desktop. You
can't use them at school, at the office, on the road, on the airplane,
in another city, etc. Having your "desktop" applications on a "laptop"
is a partial solution, but it ties the availability of the application
to the physical presence of a particular piece of equipment.

A web application is usable anywhere you have a web browser. So the
web application wins for availability.

What about clarity? I agree with you that the GUI is not the key
factor here. There are web apps with rich, clear user interfaces, and
there are desktop apps with rich, clear user interfaces. Similarly,
there are appaling examples of both.

When you think about it, the browser is itself a desktop application.
When browsing the web, we are interacting with a desktop application.
Of course there are differences in the GUI toolkits available for
browser applications and for desktop applications, but each of these
toolkits is evolving to include the best of what the other has to
offer. So, although a rich, clear interface is vital, it's not the
factor that divides desktop applications from web applications.

Next, let's consider utility. Does the application do what you need?
Interestingly, Chris Loosley puts this last in his order of
importance. It's tempting to put it first, yet the most functional
application in the world is useless if it's not available, or if it's
too confusing to use. So I'm with Chris on this one: utility comes
last (but it's still absolutely essential).

So is utility the factor that sets desktop applications apart from web
applications? It's temping to say "yes", because we don't yet have any
web application that does everything that Microsoft Word or Excel can
do (although we are certainly getting close). But that's a very
one-sided way to look at the issue, when there are web applications
that simply cannot be replicated on the desktop.

A search engine such as Google cannot be implemented on the desktop.
Our individual computers do not have the power to crawl the entire
web, index it, and perform complex search queries. Nor can we have
collaborative websites such as photo-sharing sites on the desktop.

Perhaps, though, you are more interested to compare internet
applications accessed through a web browser, versus internet
applications access through a desktop application. Here it gets
interesting. Consider Google Earth on the desktop:
versus Google Maps on the web browser:
Both can display maps, satellite photography, driving directions, etc,
yet the desktop application seems to be more powerful and elegant.

Google Earth versus Google Maps is only one data point however. If
internet-enabled desktop applications were substantially more
functional, we would expect to see more of them than we do. There
certainly are banks, collaborative groups, ticketing agencies and
recreational sites that use internet-enabled desktop applications, yet
there are vastly more that use browser-based applications.

Of Chris Loosley's four "needs", this now leaves only "responsiveness"
as a possible decider between web applications and desktop
applications, and I believe "responsiveness" is indeed the important
one. Chris doesn't say much about it though:

  "Having reached the site, pages that download slowly are
   likely to drive customers to try an alternate site."

Is that all one can say about responsiveness? I don't think so.

Firstly, it's really important. Microsoft urges developers to steer
away from unresponsive pauses in the operation of their applications:

  "This leads the user to attempt to terminate the application ...
   or even to reboot the computer. Usability studies conducted by
   Microsoft show that even periods as short as a few seconds are
   too long for many users."

   Make It Reliable

Right now, most desktop applications are more responsive than their
web equivalents. That's not surprising, considering that the bandwidth
between the computer and its hard drive could easily be a hundred
times higher than the bandwidth between the computer and the server.

Also, desktop applications are likely to be written in an efficient
compiled language whereas web applications will be using an
interpreted scripting language for user interface operations. So,
unless the application has a particularly high computational overhead,
the desktop version is likely to be more responsive.

Communication speeds are increasing, however, and in the future we can
expect the gap between local response times and internet response
times to continually narrow. That's not enough though, and here we get
to what I believe is the essence of the situation.

It's not the absolute response time that is most important; it's how
predictable the response time is. Given a choice between an
application that always responds in half a second, or one that
responds mostly in a tenth of a second but sometimes only after two
seconds, users will choose the first application.

It's the variation, the unpredictability, in the response time of a
web application that makes a desktop application feel smoother to use.
To some extent, an unpredictable response time is inevitable with a
web application. There are always going to be unknown delays in
communication over a complex network; those delays are greater and
less predictable than those due to communicating to and from a local
hard drive.

Also of some relevance to your question is an observation that modern
web applications result from a meshing of two technologies - the web
as a hypertext information space (as originally conceived), and the
web as a link between the client and server of a specific application
(as frequently found in web applications). This dichotomy, whilst
extremely powerful, can make the web application less than fully
satisfactory in terms of access to hyperspace and also in terms of a
user interface to a single application. This dichotomy is illustrated
by an annotated diagram in this PDF page by Jesse James Garrett:

   The Elements of User Experience

which is also available as part of a book by the same name:

   The Elements of User Experience

At this point, klaus777-ga, I would like to know whether you find it a
satisfying hypothesis that desktop applications gain their usability
edge due to the predictability of their responsiveness.

If you accept this hypothesis, do you need me to take it any further?
If not, please state why it is not acceptable in order to guide my
further research. Just let me know by using the "Request for
Clarification" feature.

In closing, I would like to add two further points.

First, you mentioned that you found Thunderbird more functional
because it managed all of your email accounts in one place. That's
certainly an important factor, but it's not one that's fundamental to
a desktop application. For example, you could have five accounts all
configured to forward to one Gmail account
from which you could manage all of your accounts using the Gmail web application.

Secondly, I believe that we will see an explosion in hybrid
desktop-web applications over the next few years. By that I mean
applications that will operate as a desktop application when you are
on your own computer. When you are on another computer (or a mobile
phone etc) you will be able to access the same (or very similar)
functionality as a web application. Your same data files will be used
in each case: either the desktop copy or the webserver copy will be
considered the "golden" copy, with other copies transparently
duplicated, cached and synchronised on demand.

As I said above, please let me know if you require clarification or
additional research.


Google Search Strategy:

"web applications" "desktop applications"

responsiveness applications predictable

"response time" "more important than"

Additional Links:

Web Applications: Richar or Poorer?

Performance Matters: Managing Rich Internet Applications

Request for Answer Clarification by klaus777-ga on 18 Jul 2006 10:00 PDT
Hi Eiffel, 

thanks for considering my question. I find the responsiveness issue
and the way you treat it quite interesting. I haven't thought about
that before. So, please feel free to post more info on this (and may
be on the general user experience issue). Thanks also to eion to the
point about the limited potential of web apps.


Clarification of Answer by eiffel-ga on 19 Jul 2006 14:47 PDT
Hi klaus777-ga,

I found some interesting quotations in Chapter 1 of the book "AJAX and
PHP: Building Responsive Web Applications":

  "Historically, usability techniques were applied mainly to
   desktop applications, simply because the required tools
   weren't available for web applications."

  "Web applications evolve dreaming that one day they'll look
   and behave like their mature (and powerful) relatives, the
   desktop applications."

  "As far as web applications are concerned, their evolution-
   to-maturity process will be complete when the application's
   interface and behavior will not reveal whether the functionality
   is delivered by the local desktop or comes through fiber or air."

   Chapter 1: AJAX and the Future of Web Applications

It's clear that the authors consider desktop applications to be the
shining example against which web applications should be compared, but
it's also clear that they think this is largely due to the immaturity
of web applications. But if desktop applications are the "gold
standard", then why develop web applications? The authors provide a
few reasons:

   - Web applications are easy and inexpensive to deliver
   - Web applications are easy and inexpensive to upgrade
   - Web applications are accessible from just about anywhere
     using just about any kind of browser
   - Web applications are built around a central data store
     offering management and security advantages

The argument that web application interfaces are not yet mature is
supported by articles by usability "gurus" such as Jacob Nielson

Nielson regularly explains and discusses the minutae of web user
interface design but his opinions are sometimes controversial, which
illustrates that web designers have not yet settled on an agreed set
of user interface principles. See, for example, the discussions about
hyperlinks within a page
and the same issue discussed for "Web 2.0" AJAX-programmed pages:

If we look at desktop applications, we find that comprehensive design
guidelines have been developed by the GUI vendors (e.g. Microsoft).
These guidelines, though not universally followed, lend an element of
consistency and predictability to desktop applications. However, on
the web we find every possible kind of user interface. That leads to a
lot of exciting "new and shiny" web pages, but not necessarily to a
smooth and satisfying user experience.

Returning to the primary hypothesis of my previous answer - that
consistent response time is important for user satisfaction - I have
located some supporting documents.

  "Data entry and validation on a PC will appear to have
   consistent response time. Several studies have shown
   that within a set of expectations consistent response
   time is perceived to result in better overall performance
   than variable response time?even when the average of
   variable response times is lower than the consistent case."

   Microsoft TechNet - Integration of Windows-based Client/Server
   Systems with Legacy Hosts in the Enterprise

  "Design for stability. Virtually continuous uptime and a
   consistent response time are crucial."

   Converting a UNIX .COM Site to Windows

  "The concurrent collector ... provides consistent response time
   and fewer pauses due to GC. The latter is probably what you
   want for a web application"

   JavaOne - Technical Session

There is also support for this hypothesis from research into user
interface design. I searched the "Google Scholar" service:

   "consistent response time"

Many of the articles returned by "Google Scholar" are from restricted
sites for which a fee must be paid, but the following interesting
document is available for download as a PDF:

   "User Software Engineering and the design of interactive systems"
   from Proceedings of the 5th International conference on
   Software Engineering, by Anthony I. Wasserman:

I trust you find this additional information useful.


Google Search Strategy:

"desktop applications * because"

"prefer desktop OR web applications because *"

"response time is more important than *"

"consistent response time" desktop web
klaus777-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Excellent. Great, passionate, and perfectionist Researcher!

Subject: Re: Desktop vs. Web applications
From: eion-ga on 18 Jul 2006 09:09 PDT
Remember Client side application , (local installs) are larger and
being local have grater access to librarys and function on your
machine.. (think of it as your ipod in a dock at home , with power and
speakers and a remote..)
Web based applications are server side with a local client that is
restricted by bandwith , and functionality in the 3rd party software
of your browser (of which there are many) (think of your ipod on the
go with just your headphones.. )
I have a very impressive call tracking software that is all browser
based and far superior than a similar C++ application it runs withing
my company and is not effected by the security restrction of browsers.
Subject: Re: Desktop vs. Web applications
From: klaus777-ga on 20 Jul 2006 02:58 PDT
Hi Eifel,

I got a follow up research task, I don't know if you would be
interested in that. If yes, how should I proceed?

In the same line of desktop vs. web applications, I feel that there
should be a notion of distance from the application to the user. I
feel that web applications are far away while desktop applications are
just there sitting on my desktop. I feel that an application on my
desktop is MY APPLICATION while that on the server remains someone's
else. Are these points somehow documented?

If no, why then are application developpers fighting to have a place
on the user  desktop or on my tray (taskbar)?


Subject: Re: Desktop vs. Web applications
From: eiffel-ga on 20 Jul 2006 11:36 PDT
Hi klaus777-ga,

If you have a follow-up research task, please post an additional
question. The notion of "distance from the application to the user" is
interesting, but it's rather subjective and I'm not sure whether or
not I will find supporting documents.

Regarding the application developers fighting for a place on the
desktop or taskbar - that's driven by economics and the issues are
fairly straightforward.


Important Disclaimer: Answers and comments provided on Google Answers are general information, and are not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. Google does not endorse, and expressly disclaims liability for any product, manufacturer, distributor, service or service provider mentioned or any opinion expressed in answers or comments. Please read carefully the Google Answers Terms of Service.

If you feel that you have found inappropriate content, please let us know by emailing us at with the question ID listed above. Thank you.
Search Google Answers for
Google Answers  

Google Home - Answers FAQ - Terms of Service - Privacy Policy