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Kevin Cheng  

The Future of the Web: Yahoo or Flash?

January 29th, 2005 by Kevin Cheng :: 11 Comments

In a presentation I gave last week, a person asked an interesting question. To paraphrase him, he mentioned a growing popularity towards simple, minimalist web interfaces such as Craig’s List and wondered whether the future of the web was heading towards (or backwards?) to such interfaces or whether rich internet applications still had a place.

I’m interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this. My initial take is the usual answer of those in our field: “it depends”. Craig’s list is a very basic categorization of information. The basic concept of a simple directory is not new, Yahoo! has done it for years. They serve their purpose perfectly, which is what makes them so popular. I say it depends because there are plenty of applications which do deserve rich internet applications. Mostly, these are useful for sites which have more focused tasks.

For example, one of my favourite sites is turbotax.com. I’ve used this site three years in a row to file my taxes and it is still one of the most polished javascript web applications I’ve had the pleasure of using - or at least as much pleasure as one could have filing taxes. The task is non-trivial, involving many steps and requiring a lot of context sensitive help and validation. “Minimalist design” simply would not work in this case. Perhaps it’s been re-popularized by sites developed by Google but even they do rich applications when it makes sense - applications like GMail.

I bring this up in relation to this week’s strip because I think Flash is in a position to be the platform for rich internet applications. The biggest challenge for the developers of these applications won’t be in the technology barriers in a year or two. Those will be solved as frameworks become more standardized. The challenges will be firstly choosing when to use the tools available. As Craig’s List and countless others demonstrate, sometimes the basics are sufficed. The second challenge will be working within a framework with no defined user interface.

Developing an application for Windows or OS X, or even creating a web page comes with certain interface elements which are understood by most of the users of that system. Windows applications have File menus and ctrl-c to copy, OS X has their coloured circles to minimize or close a window, web pages use “home” and “contact us” in generally the same places. The only standard that Flash sites have right now is that most have “skip intro”. As Flash and other frameworks become more sophisticated and the applications become more than glorified web pages, we’re likely to see a period of experimentation where everyone will be coming up with their own paradigms for representing their interfaces. Perhaps a few years beyond, they will evolve some semblance of standards much like we’ve seen on platforms.

The future of the web isn’t about one technology or one way of representing data. If sites are trending towards one or another, it’s probably more indicative of a lack of understanding of the options than any real sign that one has triumphed over the other. There is a time and place for both the Yahoos and the Flashes depending on the needs. Unfortunately, determining the appropriate solution is non-trivial and I think many companies will end up choosing what seems popular at the time instead.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?