The annoying browser boundaries

Since I started writing web applications in around 1999, there’s been an ever-present boundary around what you can do in a browser. As browsers have improved, we have a new line in the sand. They’re more enabling now, but equally annoying.

Applications running on servers in a datacenter (Ruby, Python, PHP) can’t:

  • interact with a user’s data (for largely good reason)
  • make interesting graphics
  • hop over to a user’s computer(s) without tremendous effort (i.e. people running and securing their own servers)

Browser applications can’t:

  • store data on the user’s computer in useful quantities (this recently became less true, but isn’t widely used yet)
  • compute very hard; you can’t run the latest games or intense math within a browser
  • hang around on a user’s computer; browsers are a sandbox of their own, built around ephemeral information retrieval and not long-term functionality
  • present themselves for discovery in various vendor app stores (iTunes, Play, Steam, etc.)

It may seem like native applications are the way to go. They can do all the things browsers cannot. But!

  • native apps are more susceptible to the changing needs of their operating system host, may go stale (look outdated) or outright not work anymore after several years
  • often struggle to find a sustainable mechanism for exchanging a user’s money for a developer’s time; part of that is the royalty model paid to platforms and stores, part of that is the difficulty of business inherent to building any application
  • cannot exceed the resources of one user’s computer, except for a few very high-end professional media production applications

In practice, this means there’s a step before building an application where I figure out where some functionality lives. “This needs to think real hard, it goes on a very specific kind of server. This needs to store some data so it has to go on that other server. That needs to present the data to the user, so I have to bridge the server and browser. But we’d really like to put this in app stores soooo, how are we going to get something resembling a native app without putting a lot of extra effort into it?”

There’s entirely good reasons that this dichotomy has emerged, but it’s kinda dumb too. In other words, paraphrasing Churchill:

Browsers are the worst form of cross-platform development, except for all the others.

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