Google Gears: the SOAP approach to Web app development

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I respect what Google’s trying to accomplish with Gears very much, and appreciate that they’re helping draw attention to the need to build out the client-side of the Web a bit more, and that they’re doing it with open source. They’ve nailed the what perfectly.

Then again, Web services nailed their requirements perfectly too.

I think the how of what Gears is doing is, frankly, misguided. There’s minimal reuse of existing Web technologies, and it’s overly imperative when it could be easily be far more declarative. Each of these issues raise the bar for the kinds of skills a Web developer needs. Not a good thing.

Interestingly, the Web services analogy doesn’t stop at the requirements. When I talk about “minimal reuse”, what I’m referring to is that the Web already has a mature and general API for accessing and manipulating local data-oriented services – the DOM – and no “gear” I’ve seen has yet to use it for data access. So instead of a Javascript GeoLocation object that might expose method calls such as getCurrentLocation() or getLockedSatellites(), why not make the object a DOM Node and treat the data contained within as a document? Something like;

<Location>
  <Current>45.234,-120.999</Current>
  <LockedSattelites>4</LockedSatellites>
</Location>

(or better yet perhaps, microformatted HTML – though there’s issues there)

Then you could use the DOM itself to get at those values, or perhaps even a CSS selector. Simple!. You even get events for free.

Why is it that the industry continues to overlook the value of reusing pervasively deployed generic abstractions, be they network oriented or local? It couldn’t be a case of NIH, because the DOM is unavoidable if you’re a Web dev. I guess it just didn’t occur to the them, though that doesn’t explain the push back.

dom, gears, google, javascript, web20

Google Gears: too much interface?

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So I had a quick look at Google Gears this morning. Unlike some, I do most definitely see value in supporting disconnected scenarios, not because I don’t see pervasive wired and wireless networks being the rule in the not-too-distant future – I do – but because I understand that networks are unreliable. That said, I do have some concerns about how Gears was put together.

My primary concern is that I’ve always felt that supporting offline use in existing browsers required more innovation of implementation rather than interface, whereas Gears is all about interface. What I mean by that is that I believe that a better, more easily deployable and usable solution would be for Mozilla itself to tweak the implementations of its HTTP stack, cache, and XMLHttpRequest object. Instead, Gears gives us new interfaces like LocalServer, which developers are supposed to use to check for valid cached representations before hitting up XHR: something XHR could very well do itself, largely transparently (I expect – haven’t considered all the backwards-compatibility issues).

Now, Gears could very well be something that was deployed for its ability to enable features today, because Google didn’t want to have to wait for HTML 5 (and its equivalent of client-side storage) to be deployed. And from that perspective it’s great (though requiring a plugin is a bit of a pain). I just hope that the Gears folks are talking with Hixie and Mozilla about where to draw the line here.

ajax, google, mobile, standards, w3c, web20, xml

Apollo and the Google brand

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This report about Google’s brand power reminds me of a discussion I had with a guy from Adobe at ETech who was pushing Apollo. I was trying to figure out why somebody would want to use it, and this guy’s response was “One word; branding”. Of course, he trotted out the expected example of Apple and iTunes and said that iTunes was more immersive and therefore provided Apple superior branding. Ok, fair enough. But obviously, as this report shows, Google didn’t require a fat client in order to build one of the world’s strongest brands.

Adobe’s ability to execute has been impressive, of course. But I can’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t be doing so much better had they simply innovated on top of the Web. I suppose that’s the easy way out, but it’s not nearly the most lucrative.

ajax, standards, web, web20

Declarative Ajax catching on

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Just a quick followup on a previous piece, Ajaxian picked up a couple of declarative Javascript stories today;

Any move of the pendulum in this direction is a-ok by me. But to be clear, I am glad it’s a pendulum … meaning that there’ll always be a place for script (the bleeding edge), but we need to consolidate common practice periodically. This also gives us the opportunity to support the functionality natively in the browser.

ajax, standards, web20, xml

WAP-think invades Mobile Web 2.0

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How has Mobile Web 2.0 come to this;

One way that Web 2.0 companies can similarly adjust their services for mobile devices is by relying less on browser-based applications and more on small software clients that users can download onto their phones. “The browser will fade into the background,” said Wood.

The article’s not all bad though (in fairness, the main message is obvious – as Micah says, “Duh”). It also warns against “naive copying of PC services” (which I assume he means Web sites primarily targetted at PC users – a subtle but important distinction), which is good advice, but here’s a tip for mobile folks; if you find yourself moving outside the browser, or doing so while not using Web technologies (widgets), you’re not doing Web 2.0. It might be “Mobile 2.0″, but it’s not Web 2.0, and therefore not “Mobile Web 2.0″.

And this…

He used the example of Google Maps, an application initially designed for the PC. Because the application is built on Ajax, like many other Web 2.0 services, it pushes data out to the client device in order to speed up future user requests. On a mobile phone, that process drains battery life, eats up limited memory and results in potentially very high data-access charges. Google Inc. has introduced a version of the program designed for mobile phones that eliminates some of that overhead, improving the mobile user experience.

Well, guess what; using the phone drains the battery, consumes memory, and costs money. Mapping on a phone is going to use more resources than, say, doing email, which in turn will use more than checking the current time. But so what? Mapping is resource-intensive (although you could certainly do better than Google has).

Have you ever used the fat-client Google Maps Mobile referred to above? It’s not exactly the posterchild for efficient use of resources – I’ve got (well, RIM had 8-) the phone bill to prove it. I’m not saying the Web version doesn’t consume more, but I would be surprised if a little optimization couldn’t bring it in line with the midlet. Besides, I’d bet that if you asked Google the reasons they created it, resource consumption would be way down the list, and the lack of widely deployed AJAX stack on mobile devices would be at the top … which is rapidly changing, of course.

While the unique needs of mobility should always be acknowledged, and normally accomodated, remember that there lies a very slippery slope … the same one that WAP happily slid down years ago by internalizing the belief that mobile was so special that it needed non-interoperable mobile equivalents of every protocol from IP on up. And while there are, as always, exceptions – apps that are much better off as an installable app than a Web app – are you certain that yours is one, and do you realize what you’re sacrificing by going that route?

ajax, google, mobile, standards, web20

Snake oil on the Web

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Jorgen tries to convince us that Web 2.0 Needs WS-*. But he’s going to have do a lot better than arguments like this;

And, as if to underscore why I don’t see the REST / POX / AJAX “religion” achieving too much traction among enterprises, try explaining the phrase “The Web is All About Relinquishing Control” to any corporate security manager!

Well, if Jorgen had read what Alex was saying about relinquishing control, he might not think that such an insurmountable task;

This is possible because no one owns the web, and consequently no one can control it. The web is everyone’s property, and everyone is welcome to join in. It’s the world of sharing. The need for control has been relinquished, and it is left to the participants to sort their discrepancies out. The web as a medium and as a technology is not going to offer any assistance in that regard.

In other words, relinquishing control is largely about adopting public standards in lieu of pursuing proprietary interests, in particular the public Web standards that make inter-agency document-oriented integration (relatively) simple to achieve. If you are responsible for securing an Intranet, it should be your first and primary consideration to trust messages which are based on publicly vetted agreements, like most Web messages, and similarly, to distrust those messages whose complete semantics are not publicly vetted, like most SOAP messages.

rest, soa, soap, softarch, standards, web20, webservices

Mashup best practice #2

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Following up on my finger-wag at Google for not properly supporting mashup developers by messing up versioning, I have to now send them full props for one thing they’re doing very, very, right.

One half of Postel’s Law says “Be liberal in what you accept”, and Google has done exactly that in at least two places. First is in Google Maps, where you can enter pretty much anything resembling a street address, and more often than not it’ll grok it. That’s not to suggest it couldn’t be improved mind you – about a quarter of the time I probably have to refine what I enter, but still, that’s not bad. Without this capability, Maps mashups would be a lot more difficult to develop in part because there exists no widely adopted standard format for an address, leaving prose as the only option for interchange. By doing this Google is absorbing the costs of solving the problem, and relieving mashup developers of the burden. Quite the contrast to their API versioning policy! 8-O

Another example of this I’ve noticed is Google Calendar, where it can accept dates also in prose, even relative ones like “tomorrow”. And this is despite having somewhat decent time and calendaring standards. So why the prose? It just simplifies integration, as the calendar integration with GMail demonstrates; it can pick out dates from an email without requiring the sender conform to any particular standard. Actually, I don’t know if that’s GMail or calendar doing it, but I hope it would be the calendar so that it can be more easily reused in other calendar-integration scenarios.

FWIW, I recall Peter Norvig saying something in his recent highly publicized run-in with TimBL about the value of this approach (mining existing content) over authoring new content; just can’t find the quote I’m looking for right now, but I’ll add it when I do.

google, mashups, web20

Meebo Me

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Tech Crunch reports on a cool new service from Meebo, called Meebo Me, which allows people to embed a (flash) app in their pages which permits a one-on-one dialog with the owner of the page via Meebo. Neat-o. I thought I saw something like this a while ago, but whatever… It was a snap to setup, so that’s what I did as you can see on the sidebar (if you’re at my page). Hmm, would the universe explode if I included the app in my feed? 8-).

I’m already seeing a bunch of “meeboguest” users appear and disappear in my meebo window (hmm, it’s a good thing I’m not an A-lister!), presumably as folks visit my page then close their browser window. It also appears that I don’t have to wait for them to contact me – that I can, at my own discretion, send a message to them.

It seems that this Web thing will never grow old.

Update; I suppose a downside to incoming messages is that they’re anonymized by default and therefore only usable in the context of that session. So if you leave me a message, I can’t get back to you if you close your browser window … unless you de-anonymize yourself by setting a meebo username.

web20

Towards best practices for mashups

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I previously pointed to the announcement of the shutdown of a version of the Google Adwords API, and commented that this really isn’t the way to go about versioning your Web 2.0 APIs.

I’ve been digging into Google Maps recently, and noticed that they’re making the same mistake;

The v=2 part of the URL http://maps.google.com/maps?file=api&v=2 refers to “Version 2 ” of the API. When we do a significant update to the API in the future, we will change the version number and post a notice on Google Code and the Maps API discussion group.

After a new version is released, we will try to run the old and new versions concurrently for about a month. After a month, the old version will be turned off, and code that uses the old version will no longer work.

Obviously we’re still pretty early into the whole “mashup” thing, but not too early that we shouldn’t be thinking about best practices IMO. And best practice #1? Don’t do what Google’s doing here, which is asking all their users – mashup developers who have committed themselves to this service – to absorb the cost of their inability to develop an extensible API.

I think a good rule of thumb for service providers is to assume that you’ve got a million mashups using your service, and therefore that the cost of incompatible changes is prohibitive for the mashup developers. Any other approach is sure to drive those developers to other service providers who do a better job evolving their APIs; bad juju if your business depends on attracting eye-balls.

So what constitutes a “better job”? I suggest it has something to do with declarative Javascript, but my argument needs some work so I’ll save that for another post.

ajax, google, mashups, softarch, web20

James Strachan on SOAP/REST

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James Strachan sums it all up when he says;

[...]Whatever happens in this whole web services thing, I do think alot of good has come from it already. Its forced people to think alot about distributed systems and why the web works and scales – there’s a lot of great lessons there. Its also brought together lots of diverse communities from the web side of things, from MOM folks and distributed objects folks. If nothing else its made us look again at distributed object technologies like DCOM, CORBA, EJB and ask lots of questions – I think its also taught us what a leaky abstraction the traditional view of distributed objects are.

This is exactly my view. Once this is all resolved – and I hope for the industry’s sake that it is soon – a lot more people will be appreciative of the extent of the gift that TimBL gave to the world, and the principled design that Roy laid out for us.

What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

And FWIW, I’ve maintained my “distobj” email address for a reason; the Web is a distributed object infrastructure, with the critical innovation that all objects implement the same interface (have I said that enough yet? 8-).

soap, web20

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