Comments on The End of The Application

I 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 address them since I don’t think many people subscribe to the comments feed. Before I get into them, I also wanted to call out this blog post from Anne Thomas Manes of the Burton Group. Out of a discussion on the Yahoo SOA Group about the relationship between 3-tier and SOA, she posted this entry which included this statement:

I also expect that the concept of “application” is likely to go away. Why is it that we as systems users have to be constrained by the limits of this artificial boundary called an application? Why do I have to shift my focus among multiple applications? Why do I have to copy data from one application to another? Why do I have to launch this stupid browser or that stupid application to get my work done? Why isn’t everything just accessible to me from my desktop (via widgets and gadgets) or from within my preferred operating context (e.g., email)?

It was this that prompted me to put together my original post, since I couldn’t find an entry in my blog that was specifically dedicated to this topic, although I had mentioned it as part of other entries. I had meant to include a link to Anne’s post in my first entry and forgot.

The first comment came from Brian “Bex” Huff who stated:

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.

Bex actually made a statement that is indicative of the current culture, which was “Applications stand alone.” My opinion is that applications shouldn’t stand alone. Why shouldn’t we have the ability to present a UI component that can manipulate spreadsheets anywhere? Yes, there will always be cases where spreadsheet manipulation is the only thing we want to do, but there’s also plenty of cases where embedded spreadsheet manipulation would be better for users. What will enable this is thinking in terms of capabilities, rather than in terms of applications. My opinion is that an application is the result of packaging, rather than a unit of composition.

The second comment came from Rob Eamon. He wrote:

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 donít think approaching everything that way is a wise course. IMO, it would inhibit flexibility rather than promote (counter-intuitive such that may be).

I wish Rob would have went into more detail on the “issues” that the typical application development/support team faces, because I can only guess what they may be. My first guess is that application teams currently have to deal with ever changing requirements and needs. If you increase the number of parts, you now have smaller components with new relationships associated with their use, and if we don’t manage it well, chaos will ensue. It should be noted that I’ve never said that this type of shift would be easy, and if anything I’d say it’s going to incredibly difficult. I’ve reflected on this in the past, specifically in this post, and wonder if it will take some company approach IT like this from the beginning, without any baggage to create the impetus to change.

Rob went on to state that in his opinion, the application is still a useful and reasonable building block. Here’s where I disagree, for the same reasons I used in Bex’s comments. An application is typically a “packaging” exercise, and those packages aren’t what we want for composition. The only part of an application that still has significant potential for being a “stand-alone” entity is the UI. I’d be happy to see an IT organization that makes an organizational/funding separation between development of UI code from development of services that are used by the presentation tier, much as Jeff Schneider suggested in this post from early last year.

Where I’ll agree with Rob is that this is not a change for the weak of heart. If a new CIO came in and reorganized the organization along these lines, the chaos that might ensue could certainly result in the perception that IT is even less agile than they were before. So, this isn’t a change that will occur in a year. This is a gradual, evolutionary change that will take time, but it will only happen if we’re committed to making it happen. I think a key to that is to get away from the application mindset.

Thanks to Rob & Bex for the great comments, and I’d love to hear from others whether you agree or disagree with my opinions.

4 Responses to “Comments on The End of The Application”

  • bex:

    “My opinion is that an application is the result of packaging, rather than a unit of composition.”

    Depends on what you mean by “packaging.” If you mean “marketing,” then I disagree. If you mean “creating/building,” then I agree.

    A Unix “application” was a fully stand-alone unit, but they could be chained together with clever shell scripts to form “solutions.” A proper Unix shell application did one thing, it did it well, and it played well with others.

    I see little difference here… a proper “application” should stand alone, AND play well with others. That may mean have a command-line interface, conform to some “standard,” or have a well-documented API.

    Proper applications should scale UP to be part of a solution, scale SIDEWAYS for a line-of-business application, or function as-is out of the box.

  • Rob Eamon:

    +1 on what bex stated.

    Todd wrote: “An application is typically a “packagingâ€? exercise,”

    This implies that independent components are merely bundled together to be shipped out. This isn’t the case. There are common elements amongst all the components of an application. They share design decisions (good and bad); they share definitions (no disagreement about the “customer” object); they leverage common utilities/facilities; etc.

    I understand the desire to move these items up to the enterprise level. There is definitely an appeal to doing so. But the challenges of doing so in a wholesale fashion are simply insurmountable, IMO.

    I’ll enumerate the challenges under separate cover.

  • Webster Homer:

    Having spent the last few months learning how to build “applications” using the Eclipse RCP framework, I believe that the OSGI plugin model will prevail. Applications will probably become collections of bundles of related plugins which together will be useful in solving some user defined problem. Users will be able to add their own plugins to commercially available ones. In that case applications will not be static stand alone things, but will instead reflect a user’s real needs by integrating spreadsheets, and analysis tools and database access from various sources.
    That is the promise of frameworks like Eclipse RCP. I my opinion that is the future of application development.

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