Spolsky’s Changing Opinion on UI

By Deane Barker on January 12, 2006

Simplicity and ubiquity matter (or, How reality mugged Joel Spolsky): This a good post that discusses how Joel Spolsky changed his mind about user interfaces. I knew Spolsky was very thick-client oriented for a long time, but this post has some interesting insights and information on how and why he changed his mind, starting with CityDesk, his desktop Web site editor.

But a funny thing happened to CityDesk. It wasn’t that successful, despite the enthusiasm of a core group of loyal users like me. In two and a half years it has not taken the world by storm. Spolsky’s firm, Fog Creek Software, is better known for its FogBugz problem-tracking software, a classic piece of Web-server-based software with – yes – a browser interface.

“CityDesk never really succeeded in selling to organisations with more than two or three people,” Spolsky told me in July 2004. One reason: most Web sites are maintained by a group working from several locations. “If they’re all on a LAN, fine,” notes Spolsky. “But once someone wants to use it at home … Web-based software is better.”

Then, of course, came his essay “How Microsoft Lost the API War”, which we talked about before. In that essay, he went this direction:

Much as I hate to say it, a huge chunk of developers have long since moved to the web and refuse to move back. […]

None of this bodes well for Microsoft and the profits it enjoyed thanks to its API power. The new API is HTML, and the new winners in the application development marketplace will be the people who can make HTML sing.

I’m going the reverse direction these days, actually. I’m more convinced daily that richer interfaces are required. Additionally, I think owning the container is really the way to go for a product that people use often.

The bottom line is that we could really use a middle ground between the two extremes. To this end, I’m becoming interesting in Web-enabled thick client editing apps like Ecto and RocketPost, though I haven’t found one that has really blown me away yet — they’re too blog-centric right now, limited by the API with which they have to interact.

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  1. If you’re looking for a middle ground, look no further than XUL. It lets you build rich interfaces in their own containers that can be run straight from a web server, which solves the redistribution dilemna. It leverages existing web developer skillsets like CSS, RDF, XML, and Javascript. And it can be run by every version of Firefox ever installed, which means its starting to get a pretty large installed base.

    My prediction? This year could be the year of XUL. Someone will release an app that uses XUL sent from the server, it will be hailed as revolutionary, and everyone will start jumping on the bandwagon.

  2. XUL is pretty slick… but you can do this with VB.Net as well.

    I know, I know – who wants to use Microsoft’s stuff (besides me). But it is a good implementation and delivery.

    As for the thick versus thin client arguement I can really go both ways. I have done alot of ASP.Net applications that are very complex and utilize a lot of Javascript to limit round trips, but I am just now experimenting with .Net Remoting which basically allows a thick client to access a backend server farm via HTTP. Pretty cool and can open up a whole slew of options.

    Which way is better? They both have pros and cons that would take too long to list here. Sounds like a blog post waiting to happen.

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