Why I’ve Switched from Browser-Based Apps Back to Native Software on the Desktop

By Will Smith

Moving from powerful, native Desktop clients to clunky web-apps isn’t always a good thing. In fact, it’s often a significant step backwards.

“The browser’s the future, everything will live on the web.”

How many times have you heard that in the last five years? Since the dawn of the web application, Google, Microsoft, and countless other companies have pushed millions of users and companies to browser-based clients for email, calendaring, document editing, file sharing, and more. You know what though? Moving from powerful, native Desktop clients to clunky web-apps isn’t always a good thing. In fact, it’s often a significant step backwards.

It started when I switched from Gmail, a fantastic web-based mail client for Google mail service, to Sparrow, an OS X mail client tailored specifically to work with Gmail’s custom features. While Gmail takes a long time to load, its performance is gated by my Internet connection and brower’s capabilities, Sparrow launches quickly and runs smoothly even on a poor (or no) connection. While offline access has come, gone, and then come again since Gmail launched, it never works particularly well.

Getting in and out of email is also much faster and easier with a dedicated client than a browser. I can access Sparrow by clicking on the Dock (or Taskbar) or by using OS level shortcuts--Expose on the Mac and alt-tab on Windows. This lets me quickly switch from a task, to email, and back to a task again. When my email client lives within a browser tab, or even window, just finding the right tab can take longer than clicking an icon on my Dock. Window management is faster and easier to use than tab management, whether you’re on Windows, OS X, or Linux.

Window management is faster and easier to use than tab management, whether you’re on Windows, OS X, or Linux.

For calendar managment I use iCal as a front end for Google Calendar. When I’m on my Mac, it’s dead simple to add or modify an appointment, then iCal updates the online mirror of my local calendar. Opening Google Calendar takes significantly more time, waiting for new pages to load inside the app takes longer. By the time I’ve launched my browser, navigated to the right website, clicked the link (or pressed the hotkey) to add an event, iCal is closed again.

And then there’s the password problem. When I’m using a dedicated client, I typically set the client to store credentials for me. That way, I don’t have to type a username and password to access a service I use multiple times a day. While browser cookies theoretically serve the same purpose, they don’t work particularly well. Most web services expire their cookies too frequently and some browsers just plain handle cookies poorly, so you end up entering your passwords all the time. Yes, this is secure, but it’s a pain in the ass. If you need to access two Google accounts with at the same time? Good luck. Google’s support for signing into multiple accounts at the same time is just jacked up.

And that’s really just scratching the surface. There are myriad smaller problems. Drag and drop rarely works as well as in a real application. On Google’s own browser, the copy/paste menu options in Google Docs simply don’t work properly. Notifications for email clients require a standalone app or a browser extension. Calendar reminders only work if you actually have the browser to the right page, and even then, they’re very easy to miss.

Web apps are one-size fits all. While some services allow minor or cosmetic customization, if you want a highly customized experience, the tools that let you do that (Greasemonkey and Stylish) can have a negative impact on performance. It’s true that most native clients are highly customizable either, but with a massive variety of choices--from massive commercial applications to the applications that ship with your OS to indie applications, there’s a multitude of options for most common tasks. I may not be able to make Word look like WriteRoom, but I don’t need to, when I can just install WriteRoom.

Naturally, there are circumstances where a web application is preferable to a traditional desktop client. Having multiple people editing a single Google Doc remains incredibly useful, and there isn’t a dedicated client that allows that with the universal support that Google Docs does. For word processing, ease of sharing and universal access makes the downsides of web-based applications worth tolerating.

Like many things in the real world, this isn’t a black and white debate. In fact, native apps, like Sparrow, that seamlessly integrate with browser-based applications represent the best of both worlds. They give you quick, easy, and convenient access to your data from your main computer, but you also benefit from the ability to access your info from any Internet-connected computer or phone with the proper login credentials. What are your favorite native clients for browser-based applications?