The End of the Application

Normally I’m not the guy to stir up a lot of controversy, but there’s one topic that I’ve mentioned on mailing lists, here, etc. that usually attracts a few opposing comments. That topic is the use of the term application in the enterprise. I’d like to see that term go away, or at least be limited to just the presentation layer of a solution. Why is that? It’s because it’s the boat anchor of IT, in my opinion. Think about it. How do we get out of the habit of thinking about monolithic point solutions for one small user group and into the habit of thinking about business capabilities that have potential for broader applicability when we have one hundred-plus organizations with the title “application development?” How do we deal with the organizational concerns when applications that were built for one group with one intent are now suddenly critical components for many other solutions with different user bases, each with their own set of priorities?

If nothing else, a switch from using the term “application” to the term “solution” would be a symbolic gesture that represents the change that must occur within IT. IT shouldn’t be producing applications, we should be producing solutions. Those solutions may still be self-contained like yesterday, or they may be a composite of pieces from many previous solutions, some new development, some off the shelf solutions, and some Internet-hosted offerings. The boundary of what constitutes “one application” are all but impossible to draw because of the many necessary interdependencies. Even if we limit the use of the term to just the presentation layer, it’s still debatable whether we should be using it. For example, are widgets on the OS X Dashboard applications? We don’t call them applications, we call them widgets. There’s some pretty sophisticated widgets, though. But wait a minute, won’t Word and Excel be around forever as applications? Well, the latest version of OS X introduced Quick Look, where with a press of the space bar, I can see the contents of an Excel spreadsheet without launching “an application.” The ability to present information in a tabular format is merely a capability. So, even in the sacred ground of the desktop, there are arguments that this notion of application launching may become less important to where the right thing simply happens.

I’m not a fool, and I certainly don’t think the use of the term application is going to go away in 2008, or anytime soon, but I do think that to continue the innovative use of technology, we need to make sure that the terms of the past aren’t locking us in to a single way of thinking about how computers are used. The continued need for better integration and more context-awareness in our technology solutions will only increase, and that pressure will continue to challenge any organization that is stuck with the application-centric view of technology as their boat anchor.

6 Responses to “The End of the Application”

  • bex:

    people understand the term “application,” but the word “solution” is a bit too nebulous.

    Applications stand alone… what good is a widget to view an Excel doc, without the Excel application to create the doc in the first place?

    I agree that IT should always *think* in terms of dynamic, evolving “solutions”… but the basic building blocks still include “applications”… as well as toolkits, frameworks, libraries, etc.

  • Rob Eamon:

    There will always be a collection of components/services that have been designed to work together to provide some set of functionality. And there will always be multiple sets of these. And there will always be a need for these sets to interact, possibly through mediation.

    Disaggregating application components and making them independently accessible in many contexts seems very appealing.

    But take the issues that the typical application development/support team faces and blow that up to the enterprise level. The fragile nature of such an approach will inherently stop it from becoming a reality.

    IMO, the application is still a useful and reasonable building block and allows us to break down the enterprise solution space into manageable chunks.

    Some of the application components might be useful as independent entities in a larger setting, but I don’t think approaching everything that way is a wise course. IMO, it would inhibit flexibility rather than promote (counter-intuitive such that may be).

  • […] received a couple comments on my previous post, and rather than respond in the comments themselves, I thought I’d use another blog post to […]

  • Todd – Thank you for asking this bold question. My thoughts on the concept of “decommisioning” the term application are posted on my blog posting at the following URL.

  • […] the term “application” and while he didn’t go as far as I have in the past (see The End of the Application), he did make it clear that the notion of “application” needs to change. He just hit […]

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