18 Aug

Organizr is Nice, But Not a Web App

Sure, Organizr is great, and the folks at Ludicorp work impressively fast. However, please stop calling it and others like it web applications (I’m not saying its creators do, but others introduce that confusion, starting with Macromedia). This is a Flash application that doesn’t expose its state to its host browser (to the best of my knowledge, by definition). ActiveX didn’t turn COM into a web standard and likewise Flash isn’t part of the fabric of the web. (It’s impossible that you read this weblog and confuse the web for the internet, right?)
No wonder Organizr behaves like a desktop app, that’s basically what it is, because what is Flash but a desktop runtime that happens to be integrated with most browsers? As an aside, it’s funny to think that Microsoft helped Flash get its ubiquitous reach and ultimately become a development platform (rather that just a nice animation player) in order to prevent Netscape from becoming… an ubiquitous development platform. Well done Macromedia!
Back to arguing that you need to support REST to be a web app. For example, if I use Organizer’s nifty widget to select a specific timeframe (which reminds me of Photoshop Album’s smart recognition that time is an intuitive way to access pictures), there’s no way I can share that specific state with you since the URL stays the same. Or maybe using Flash for applications makes you part of the invisible web (Flash content is not invisible to search engines anymore), like all those databases hidden behind POST forms and authentication walls. Can you belong to the web even if your content repository or application state is hidden from it? Anyway, there’s an API for those inclined to complement the Flash interface with a web app, and my architectural comments are not meant to minimize Ludicorp’s achievement.
08/19/04 update: read the comments, Organizr is actually a web app once you put it in the broader Flickr context. It’s just a matter of better exposing the relevant URLs right from the Flash tool. This goes to show Flickr has sound fundamentals and room to grow. Exciting stuff! Also, Anil Dash and Robert Scoble chime in.
08/24/04 update: The Flickr crew not only listens, it follows up fast. Organizr now exposes URLs for selected photos and sets. If you can likewise surface the URLs for search queries, tags and date selections, I’ll be a very happy camper!
11/11/04 update: Jon Udell: The state of rich Web apps.
11/20/04 update: Kevin Lynch: Making Rich Internet Apps Web-Friendly.
05/10/05 update: Flickr moves from Flash to Ajax (now live).
08/18/05 update: An Interview with Flickr’s Eric Costello.

17 thoughts on “Organizr is Nice, But Not a Web App

  1. Unsurprisingly, I’ll have to disagree with you on this: in the sense your using ‘web application,’ GMail and Oddpost wouldn’t count either. And javascript wouldn’t be part of the web – the interpreters are also “desktop runtimes that happen to be integrated with most browsers”.
    Also, Organizr does use REST version of our API even though you can’t see the URLs (again, like GMail). My webmail accounts don’t get indexed by search spiders, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of the web.
    The web’s not a platonic ideal (in my mind anyway) – it’s what’s actually out there. Web apps are apps that people access on the web, without installing anything. Any definition which would limit what counts as a web app do things using HTML form elements is just not broad enough.
    (For readers who are not aware, I am the president of the company that makes Flickr.)

  2. How about describing the app functionalities in XML (with OASIS etc.) and deploying two versions of web app clients on top of that structure: one for sighted users which is Flash-based and visually rich-interactive and another accessible one in plain html for sight-impaired users and machines? Granular URLs could be integrated into both.
    Longer piece on this at my URL:
    http://www.i-together.net/weaverluke/2004/06/rias-information-architecture-and.html

  3. You have great points about Flash, and I agree with you there, but I still think Organizr is a web application simply because I access it through the web.
    It’s funny, when I looked at photosets and the timeline, my initial thought was: I wonder when these will be available via a URL so I can share them. So my assumption was that they *would* be URL-addressable eventually, they’re just not in this version. But I could be wrong there, and it’d be a shame if you can’t share your organization with others. (I was expecting a blog-like “publish” button to make my photoset available to others.)
    I think this is a first round for Organizr, and my guess is that it’ll be even more like a traditional web app in the not too distant future–retaining that rich interface of a desktop app.

  4. Ah, this takes me back to such discussions as “what is a weblog?”, “what is a web service?”, and “are weblogs journalism?” I guess I’m with Stewart on this one for the most part. I would call Organizr and Gmail web applications, but it’s fair to say that their utility is limited because they’re not easily connected to the rest of the web. Of course, RESTian web apps are limited too…performing tasks page-by-page is not always the most efficient way of doing things.

  5. The utility of Organizr is that allows you to organize your Flickr photos by tagging them and adding them to sets and group pools (easily, and without a lot of page loading delays); that done, all your photos and the changes you made in Organizr are available by URL throughout the rest of the Flickr site, handy transparent URLs like http://www.flickr.com/photos/eric/tags/shopsmith/. Organizr is a management component of a larger web app called Flickr, not a standalone app. Maybe we should make it more clear within Organizr what the relevant URLS are, so like if you do a tag search in Organizr, provide the URL for the page on the site that would display the same results.

  6. To me, the is-it-or-isn’t-it question is easy to solve. Yes, Flash can be used on the desktop and can be very desktop app-like and doesn’t expose every part of it to the browser like DHTML would, but in the case of Organizr, I’m using it to access, organize, and manipulate photo files *on their server*. If there was a desktop component I’d be in agreement with you, but we’re talking about a Flash-mediated remote file viewer, and due to the files residing somewhere on a server out there, it’s a web app.
    That it also resembles Photoshop Album is what got me to proclaim it was so desktop app-like for a web app.

  7. Matt, good point about the remote location of the files, but that still could make it an internet application (like, say, most P2P clients), not a *web* application. Also, sorry about the server errors, I’ll have to investigate (sigh, I thought my blog was free of those dreaded comment-related errors).
    Eric and Stewart, I get it now. Yes, you can do a better job exposing the relevant URLs from the Organizr itself, there’s a bit of a disjoint here. I think that now makes you pass the "web app" grade in my book :-), since its states and output are indeed shareable and exposable to the browser.
    Coming next: a post about how Organizr is the groundwork for a great blogging editor.

  8. Jason, you’re right that the page-by-page model is not always the most efficient way to handle complex tasks (as Luke pointed out in his post drag and drop does many things in one mouse move), and I think Paul reached the correct conclusion: Flickr will provide us the best of both worlds, a rich interface combined with granular entry points into it and to the data it manipulates.

  9. Circa 1992: It’s got _pictures_ in it. It’s not a ‘real’ web page.
    Useful technologies will drive what the web is. Organizr is hyper-useful. What’s very interesting is that Client-side Java was meant to be what Flash has become. Client-side Java fell flat on its face (because it must be impossible to make an efficient JVM, or nobody cares enough to do it, because I’ve never encountered one.)
    BTW, Stewart, the accidental hubris of the phrase "for readers who are not aware…" was good for a chuckle.

  10. Yes, but… is it _art_!?! ;-)
    I tried checking recall.archive.org for confirmation of my memory of the term “web application” first occurring with Allaire ColdFusion, but received intermittent results. Allaire used this term for the model where the processing was done on the server, which delivered a series of HTML pages to the client. ASP, PHP and other serverside models later followed up on this original “web app” approach.
    A few years later Jeremy Allaire introduced the term “Rich Internet Application”, for tools which integrated both server-side and client-side interactivity, and where the client display did not need to change after each server interaction. These tended to have richer clientside interfaces than what you could reliably produce with varied clientside document browsers alone.
    As you can tell here, to minimize arguments, I usually try describing something by its functional behavior, rather than whether a particular functionally-underdefined label “should” be applied to the realworld phenomenon.
    (btw, if we could use the correct name of “Macromedia Flash” here then I’d appreciate it, thanks… I’m seeing increased conflict with “flash memory” and “flash mp3 players” these days and such, so using the actual registed name could be a big help for the long-term, thanks.)
    Regards,
    John Dowdell
    Macromedia Support

  11. First of all, John… your post made me laugh. It is nice to see companies venturing out to comment on weblogs but we aren’t an official PR outlet for you. If the web wants to call it “Flash” without your company name, then so be it. Internet content authors are not held to the same corporate chains that traditional media outfits have forced down their throat.
    Meanwhile, back to the issue at hand. Flash’s inability to run on platforms such as BSD I think damage it is ability to become a “true” web application. The promise of web applications is that they can run in any browser/os combo… I do applaud Macromedia’s efforts to bring Flash to Linux but this going to be uphill battle as the next great OS is always going to be waiting on a Flash client.
    I believe Linux folks look at about a 10 month delivery gap from when the Windows and Mac versions are made available. If I want to offer people the latest technologies of PHP/SQL/xHTML, I simply install them on my server and deliver it. I don’t have to send out a mass email asking them to upgrade to the latest version of Flash.
    On a similar note the Flash client on OS X does not deliver the same quality expierence that Flash provides on Windows. I can’t comment on the Linux version. GMAIL runs just as well on my OS X machine as it does my Windows laptop at work. It is facinating to me because Flash ran great under OS 9 and earlier.
    Finally, there’s the issue of Companies who lock-down usage of Flash, Active X, Windows Media Player etc.. only letting HTML content run on their employee’s machines.
    Don’t get me wrong, the ability to control typography and user interface in Flash makes it an ideal platform for developing user-friendly applications… but there’s an uphill battle to make a truly great web application run on the Flash platform.

  12. uh, yes, but still…. is it *art*!?!? ;-)
    You’re right, folks here haven’t invested in engineering for folks on BSD-Unix… there’s a ton of desktop platforms with engines, but if you’re running on the web with a BSD OS, then I’m not sure what your overall set of options would be, true.
    http://www.macromedia.com/shockwave/download/alternates/
    (For nomenclature, I’m just asking that people help me out here in such discussions… the *real* name is “Macromedia Flash”, and it’s well-defined, so using other names does lead to confusion. I can’t force anyone to do this, agreed, but it would just be nice if you could help me to reduce the confusion here.)
    … but we’re straying quite a bit now from “is Flickr RIA or webapp”, right…?
    jd/mm

  13. Web App?
    There are many flavors of what makes up a web application. To people and clients on the street, a web application is a useful website. To you me and other techno-junkies, a web app has much more meaning.
    I laughed at the futile attempts to separate what makes up a web app from a proprietary solution of different blends (FLASH, JAVA WEBSTART, ACTIVEX, XUL) etc.. All these “UI” in-riched solutions are simply just bolt-ons to a language never made for application level control.
    You have to first understand that the nature of what a web-application came from, where due to the early days of having thin-ware systems. The ability to execute a business tool via a remote connection, without having to perform client-side installations.
    If a web-app can do this, via a web-browser with minimal effort (whether that be utilizing a framework located on a persons hard-drive) then so be it, I personally doth declare such tool “WEB-APP”.
    As for BSD, I won’t attempt to debate at the pros/cons of Linux users and Flash. I’ve read nothing but a deep hatred towards the Flash Player from a lot of Linux users, some based on sheer ignorance alone. If you are tailoring an application to all platforms/browsers, and can do so in a timely, budget free manner while still retaining a user interaction suited to typical Client-Top applications. Please share it with the world, because you

  14. To Shawn’s comment: I dearly wish that Macromedia would work (even) harder to improve Flash performance on non-Windows systems**. I think the discrepancy will erode Flash’s biggest advantage – cross platform availability (the reason we switched to using Flash for our richest stuff is because we were sick of re-coding the same dhtml over and over for all the different browsers).
    OTOH, saying Flash is not “true” web because it doesn’t run on BSD is silly. Your apparent use of it notwithstanding, BSD is not a client/PC OS. Neither is AIX or HPUX or AS/390 or any number of other platforms/systems. (And John, please don’t request anyone at MM start working on a BSD version if that would in any way detract from file I/O in Central or Flash itself, performance improvements on Macs, etc.)
    Finally, I’m about to post this elsewhere, but the pragmatic approach is definitely the right one. Any definition of the web which excludes, say, http://example.com/foo.mov is just a bad definition.
    ** I also wish that the Safari and Firefox teams would step up the QA a little on Flash compatibility. Almost every new release there is a problem with focus/keyboard input, clipboard availability and other stuff which they’ve all had working at various times.

  15. Hi, I’m presently looking at a tool to manage my pictures and after trying Flickr I found an alternative: http://www.zoto.com.
    While I love Flickr’s ideas, overall design and the availability of an web-friendly API, I am really impressed with the work the guys at Zoto have made with powerful Javascript and HTML (which works with any decent browser you can think of).
    I’m still undecided :)

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