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Don’t Underestimate Desktop Applications

Desktop applications have been undervalued for a long time. All attention was reserved for web and mobile. While both Microsoft and Apple made strides to evolve the desktop, there has been far less energy and economic momentum behind that platform. Today the maturity of web and mobile, as well as new use cases in collaboration and AI, are fueling a rediscovery of desktops. After all, desktops still provide enormous processing and speed advantages that are only increasing.

Looking back, there were good reasons for web applications to dominate the technology world in the late 90s and early decade of this century. They were much easier to deploy and manage through browsers that are practically ubiquitous, thus creating a massive opportunity to provide applications to many people at a very low cost or for free. Timely or immediate updates with little effort are features that are still tough to beat. However, there has also been a realization that certain types of desktop applications simply will not be matched on the web, at least not in the near future.

Mobile applications exploded in popularity due to the simple fact that many millions of mini-desktops were in the hands of virtually everyone, unlocking all kinds of use cases and economic possibilities. Interestingly, many mobile use cases still favor native mobile apps—the native APIs for the local OS, of course, being quite different from those of desktops. While mobile-first app design and development dominated UX discussions for some time, the heterogeneity of use cases among different formats increasingly demands an app that best fits a particular format and usage.

Desktops are relevant because of their unmatched performance and the fact that screen size matters. The desktop OS continues to be very robust and differentiated, especially compared to the web. The easiest place to see the differentiation is gaming. While web and mobile games have evolved drastically, when it comes to REAL gaming, you need a desktop (or dedicated game station). And when we get to virtual world games with realistic graphics, other platforms are not even close.

Sophisticated developers have known for a long time that desktop IDEs have far superior capabilities. Text-editor style IDEs continue to be very popular but partially because web development has not required the type of sophistication or productivity that desktop apps do. As one of my favorite Embarcadero MVPs says, “Web dummified programming.” Microsoft has done a really nice job with Visual Code, but still, compared to RAD Studio and Visual Studio, it is relatively basic. The Web UX has too many limitations. A high productivity developer typically has multiple screens and relays on too many “sensors” and “gadgets” to achieve productivity. Below is an example of RAD Studio 10.4 with several productivity plug-ins, including navigation, bookmarks, and multithread debugging (all available for free to Update Sub customers). That is not easy or practical to achieve with a Web IDE.

RAD Studio 10.4 with several productivity plug-ins, including navigation, bookmarks, and multithread debugging (all available for free to Update Sub customers)

We have many such application examples from manufacturing, financial services, and health-care customers demonstrating that performance of desktops trumps web applications. Of course, these desktop applications are nothing like the traditional simple client-server architectures from decades ago and many have sister web or mobile clients.

Speaking about the complexity of UX, two other trends will drive increased interest in desktops and varied use cases. One is collaboration applications. Remote work is becoming a standard, and collaboration applications such as Zoom are a must. Collaboration applications are not simple. The basic use cases can be met by web and mobile clients, but desktop apps are still more robust. As an example, you can just compare the number of Zoom features by platform (I picked this up from their website). These are not ranked by importance, but the numbers are telling.

(Win & Mac)
(iOS & Android)
Zoom Features by Platform

In many ways, collaboration applications are in their infancy, as the use cases were focused on simple communications versus true collaboration. This brings me to the other major technology trend, which is AI and robotic automation. We can only imagine the number of “sensors and gauges” that will be at our disposal to help us become more productive. Gaming probably can give us a hint of the type of interaction that may be possible in the workplace.

Of course, the web will continue to evolve. As broadband speeds increase dramatically with 5G, a lot of things may change with application architectures, but if gaming, entertainment, or medical applications provide some window to the future, desktop native applications will still matter and may matter even more.

We at Embarcadero and our many partners are fascinated by the opportunity for continued thought leadership in the dynamic space of application development. RAD Studio is the foundation for many iconic desktop applications and one of the most robust IDEs, especially for Windows. Of course, we do much more than desktop today but feel a particular responsibility for that platform. In this spirit, we organized a Desktop First UX Summit in September to provide a forum for these discussions and invite you to participate.

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