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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Desktop Takes Center Stage Again

Rumors of the demise of the desktop have been greatly exaggerated. In recent years, bloggers, reporters, company executives, and others have exulted in the apparent obsolescence of the vast space on computers set aside for software. Why clutter a desktop with pricey programs for word processing, spreadsheet creation, and the like when many of those tools are becoming available, often at no cost, over the Web-or so the argument ran.

That view is being challenged lately, though, as a number of companies, including well-trafficked online destinations such as eBay (EBAY), are finding ways to take their services outside the confines of the Web browser and place them squarely within the domain of-you guessed it-the desktop.

And companies such as Adobe (ADBE) and Google (GOOG) have released or are testing products that let Web developers build desktop versions of online services and sites. Google launched a group of Web-to-desktop developer tools known as Gears in May (see, 5/30/07, "Google Gears Up to Take Web Services Beyond the Web"). "Everybody wants to be on the desktop," says Martin Kay, chief executive of online music site Finetune, which recently introduced a way to make the company's music-streaming and recommendation service available on the desktop. "People tend to forget about Web sites."

Window-Shopping with eBay

In recent days, eBay released invitations to a new test version of what it's calling San Dimas, a desktop application of its popular online auction and shopping site (see, 6/18/07, "Going, Going…Everywhere"). San Dimas resembles in color scheme and character, but it runs faster and focuses more on photos when displaying search results, making it more akin to window-shopping than scrolling through links and product descriptions. It is also more customizable and lets users shop offline and set up bids or sales to go live at some later time. "There are some specific things about the desktop where you can go a lot further," says Alan Lewis, who oversees San Dimas.

Adobe is helping companies like Finetune and eBay build desktop applications with a system called Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), which lets Web developers create feature-filled programs that can run offline but also sync up with information and sites on the Web (see, 3/21/07, "Investors Anticipate Adobe's Ascent"). Since a limited release in March, AIR has been downloaded more than 100,000 times. "I don't think the desktop was ever quite as moribund as people said," says Pam Deziel, director of product management for Adobe's platform business unit. "The desktop gives you some additional benefits."

Among those benefits is access to files on the desktop. Typically, Web services in the browser can only gain access to what is uploaded to them, say, photos sent to a specific site. A desktop version could grab all the photos on a computer's hard drive, and then give users such options as sharing some on the Web and using the service to build slide shows that can be viewed only on the PC.

Fine-Tuning Personalized Playlists

Finetune's desktop tool reads music files on users' hard drives in order to better personalize the songs streamed from its music library to the user. On the Web version of Finetune, users have to enter their favorite artists and music genres. The desktop version can create personalized playlists simply by looking at the music a user has already downloaded. In the future, says Finetune's Kay, the desktop music player will integrate songs from the user's hard drive with Finetune's own library of streaming music to create personal music mixes.

Another advantage of parking programs on the desktop is that it can reduce some of the frustrations of having a service in a browser window. People like running Web services because they can easily multitask, jumping from Web window to Web window, says Adrian Ludwig, a member of the team working on AIR's release. But the more windows are opened, the more slowly each service tends to run, as the browser becomes increasingly taxed.

And if the browser crashes from the strain, the user can lose everything-from a half-finished e-mail in one window to the streaming music playing from another. "Flipping back and forth between a lot of things is not necessarily the way you want to operate a media player," says Adrian Ludwig, a member of the team working on AIR's release.

Getting an Icon on the Desktop

What's more, the desktop lets users retain a level of privacy that many fear is lost on the Web. Privacy was a major reason Adesso Systems opted for a Web-linked desktop application when designing its file-sharing product called Tubes, says Steve Chazin, Adesso's vice-president of marketing. The program lets users drag and drop files into folders, known as Tubes, that can then be automatically published to a Web site and shared among select Tubes users. However, the files are always live on the user's desktop, enabling them to be removed from other people's view at any time simply by dragging the file from the shared Tube folder and back onto the desktop proper.

Perhaps most important for developers, the desktop's advantage is that it is still the first thing users see when they turn on their computer. If your icon is there, it's more likely that a user will opt to use your product-rather than the myriad other programs on the Web. Says Kay of Finetune: "It's not in a browser window that might get closed."

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