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As somewhat of a power user when it comes to computing (I'm a software engineer, it comes with the territory), I find that I really dislike most web apps. While some (such as GMail) offer keyboard shortcuts and other power-user-oriented treats, I find that most web apps are largely point and click with a lot of separate pages. I definitely feel a lot less productive when I am forced to use a web app for a certain function, and will always look for a desktop application or mobile app alternative whenever faced with the scenario.

However, I'm well aware that my sense of productive impact may be skewed, personal, or just plain incorrect. So my question is:

What impact, if any, does replacing desktop applications with web apps have on productivity?"

Update: I appreciate the answers I've gotten so far, and I do think this is as much a personal matter as it is any kind of universal question, but I would also love to see answers that provide things like statistics, studies, surveys, or other more empirical measurements of the changes in productivity brought on by using web apps.

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

My experience has paralleled yours. A preference for keyboard use, a home Internet connection that is not robust, and non-standard browser set-ups have really driven home the disadvantages of web-only applications.

(Or rather, the current general level of quality of web apps, as it is certainly possible to be better, faster, more user-friendly sites than is the current norm.)

If you are a big keyboard user, most web applications will slow you down due to their lack thereof. That said, do be sure to check thoroughly for their presence, as I've hit a number of applications that had at least a short list of shortcuts, but didn't bother to mention it except on their forums or somesuch.

If you have a twitchy Internet connection, many web apps will not only slow you down - as you wait interminably for things to load - but will be become completely unusable. And this isn't merely a matter of page size. My connection likes to hang at the handshake step. When a web app makes a bunch of calls to outside script servers (ads, analytics, googlecode,, akamaihd, etc.), the odds are good that one of them will hang.

If you like to work offline (or don't get a choice in the matter), web apps without offline sync will slow you down. I have a dandy modded Nook Color, which is an Android tablet with wi-fi but no cell modem. In the morning, I sync my work email over my home network, read it and write replies on the bus, and sync it all back up over the office wi-fi when I arrive. By contrast, web-only apps are completely inaccessible to me during that commute. Also, any meeting in our interior meetings rooms at work, where the campus wi-fi signal doesn't reach.

That last bit segues nicely into my closing argument. The "best" option - where "best" is meant to mean "the most productive for the most people" - is the best-of-both-worlds approach of client-server-client sync. All the portability of a web app with the offline access and stability of a desktop client. Bonus points if it's a non-proprietary data standard (like email, rss, nttp, etc.) where you can bring your own client - which might still be a web app, if that's what you like.

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One advantage of a web app is that your data is available "on the cloud" wherever you go. Even if you have a desktop application which syncs up with the cloud, you still have to have that application available wherever you go (for example, if you are at a library or using someone else's computer)

Another advantage of a web app is that the more popular ones also have mobile versions as well.

A disadvantage of a web app is that you have to have an internet connection. However, there is some effort being done for offline syncing for a few apps.

Another disadvantage of web apps is that not all of them are as full-featured as a desktop counterpart (Photoshop, for example). This is something that may change in the future as well.

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Couple of points about web apps

  • "the cloud" is good when it's there, as you can connect to it from anywhere, but when connections are down you can no longer work (unless you have a local sync)
  • latency needs to be consistently low for a web app to work well, so connectivity which is impacted at peak traffic times will not encourage users!

That said, a web app can be easier to maintain (no rollouts to users), can run on powerful hardware and if written well can have the same or better functionality than a local app.

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