The Hills Are Greener: The Dream of the Catch-All Device Deferred

The Hills Are Greener: The Dream of the Catch-All Device Deferred

Mar 18, 2013

There’s all this talk that the web and HTML5 are the future, that theoretically everything could someday just take place in the browser, which could theoretically make anything with decent hardware and a capable browser a catch-all machine. Well, the state of web apps is terrible, and no one seems to have figured out how to combine the convenience of mobile with the productive power of the desktop.

Oh, not all of the web apps are terrible: Google’s Drive-based ones are generally really good, and were especially handy back in college when it came time to print out files; no need to fiddle around with thumb drives when I could just print out my file from Google’s servers. Simple as that.

However, there lies the problem: Google has the resources to develop web apps that work across a litany of browsers. For smaller developers, it’s a bigger problem. Consider how many browsers there are, with the many operating systems that are out there. Now try to make something that works in all of them, all coded in languages that seemingly aren’t able to get the kind of efficiency that native apps are able to get. Oh, and try to use a web app on mobile, it’s usually a mess. Seriously, there’s even occasionally frustratingly big differences between the way that Android and iOS work with websites and they both are based on WebKit tchnology!

A web app’s main advantage is convenience, the ability to be everywhere; a native app’s main advantage is that it actually works, and it can do the job much better than a web app can.

Google is trying to push web apps with their Chrome OS devices like Chromebooks, which come not only in bargain-basement versions but as premium products. They’re great for browsing and using the web, as I discovered when I bought one. But as I also discovered, while they can do 90% of what I need, and for casual use will fit the bill, the little things that they can’t do – or at least can’t do well – will drive a person to madness.

Case in point, I bought a Surface Pro to fill in those gaps. It browses Chrome just as well (though it needs good high-DPI support) and can do everything else I need. It’s just that Windows 8 is a very awkward OS, a collision course of the desktop and a tablet interface, never quite agreeing on what exactly it really is.

The suggestion that perhaps Android and Chrome are on a collision course as operating systems seems like it’s perhaps a bit of too-wild speculation despite the head of Chrome now heading up Android efforts. After all, Android can theoretically do anything Chrome OS can, especially as Chrome OS is nothing more than a shell for Chrome – even the more traditional experiences for file handling and whatnot are still just webpage views, as exposed when they crash. Android could definitely come to the laptop, but I doubt it will replace Chrome OS any time soon, lest Google not help perpetuate the spread of web apps with it.

And even then, mobile operating systems lack some of the functionality that PCs have, thanks in part to different processor architectures and just the “little brother” nature of mobile devices: they’ve always been meant to do less and so apps have been set up for just that. They’re usually less-featured, and so using Android as a PC, while easier than an iOS device thanks to its file handling, is more possible. But it’s still difficult.

The ultimate point is that the catch-all device does not quite exist yet. The web is not yet there to handle everything. Desktop operating systems don’t do mobile efficiently yet. Mobile operating systems still lack much of the full functionality that desktops have. It seems to be the ultimate goal: Windows 8 is something of a franken-OS right now with the disparate Modern UI and desktop views co-mingling, but it’s trying to make one OS for tablets and for traditional computers. Ubuntu is trying to make an adaptable OS for all four screens: phone, tablet, desktop, and TV. Apple seems content to let OS X and iOS be different products, but little iOS elements are coming to OS X.

That catch-all device is still far away, it seems.