There’s a conversation floating around at the moment surrounding the rise of web platform’ applications in contrast to client applications such as those that Apple and Microsoft have been focused on. Gmail likely prompted this, along with the flurry of upgrades to Yahoo, Hotmail and even Ask Jeeves that have followed in the wake of the Gmail Beta. It’s a very interesting discussion, and one that a non-developer can sink their teeth into as it focuses primarily on usage, rather than technology or protocols.

It’s becoming apparent (to me anyway) that even with a monopoly, MS may have a shaky future with it’s current business model. Why? Well, because it’s being contemplated. That may sound too simple, but for a very long time there was not a thought (outside of the big picture believing OSS community) given to the widely held assumption that it would be a Microsoft world for some time to come.

I’ve been noticing these things in part because, in configuring Gmail and my online data ‘world’, I’ve had opportunity to examine the services that are out there in direct contrast with what has come before: First, there was Yahoo!, the only company that offered a (nearly) complete online package of any reliability. Address book, calendar, mail. Even a bit of storage. It was, to my mind anyway, clunky—but it worked. Then a bit later came .Mac, the Apple service that began as iTools. All the same features, but for pay and tied to the Mac. Elegant, but pricey—it’s the Apple way.

Now, We’ve got Gmail. Address book, Mail and… what. Something. It’s obvious that all this isn’t for the IPO—Google is building an OS out of online, interconnected services. Next up, tools for Gmail (import utility perhaps, more robust address book, integration with Orkut) and then of course, the apps. IM almost certainly. An office suite? No one ever thought a web app could be as fast as Gmail is, and that’s the major point of online office skeptics.

And this leads to me (or the user, if you prefer). I mean, come on, it’s a weblog.So I’ve been aggregating email and contacts, shifting from service to service, long enough to know what apps export what (if anything—I’m looking at you Microsoft) and which import from where. What I’ve discovered is that safest place to keep that data, and the easiest to extract it from, is online services. Redundant backups. Access anywhere. Easy to move to a new computer, no matter what OS you choose. Yahoo has kindly kept my contacts, calendars and mail intact for more than 6 years now—for nothing.I don’t go to Yahoo more than a few times a year, but When Outlook and Windows collapsed repeatedly over the years, sacrificing much of my data to MS’s hubris, Yahoo was there. More recently, .Mac has been there (along with Mac stability, but that’s neither here nor there). Soon, Google will be there too. This is good, but what’s better is that the future looks bright for ease of use in the web app world. Gmail is fantastic (if you can get over the ads. It’s not hard.), but it’s power comes from the integration of what were once desktop features—things like autocompletion of email addresses, integrated search, and smoother (if not as deep) filtering than what is built into or Outlook.It’s enough—it doesn’t have to be perfect because it has the added benefits of being a) free, and b) online, with all the things that come with that, mentioned above.

So now, for the first time, I have all of my email (from 3 websites and a number of personal accounts going back for years) passing through one location and as such being archived there. Even though I continue to use on my powerbook, my archive is online because everything forwards (but is not removed from the server) to Gmail. Combine this with .Mac and iSync, and you have almost completely automated synchronized storage of contacts, documents, mail and calendars.What’s next?Well, if you compare the services that are now available online against those most commonly used by the hoi polloi (ie, non-power users), they match up almost perfectly—except for the office suite. Mail, Addresses, Cards, Games (non-3d, which is enough for most), Storage for mom’s recipes and a place toput photo albums. All that’s missing is a way to write mom’s recipes down.

For businesses, the result is the same so long as you add in spreadsheets and powerpoint. More and more companies are shifting to nodes that are server based—the desktop is essentially nothing but a processor and a network card—and the users don’t really even notice the difference. Is this a good thing? Depends on who you are. It’s great for content management, great for keeping costs down for businesses, bad for privacy, and higher exposure should something go wrong, since everything is online once an anomaly gets in. Physical access isn’t an issue any longer, for better and worse.It’ll be fascinating to see how each company addresses the trend. Microsoft will continue to fight it or redirect it (“the desktop is the future”); Google will quietly continue to seep into every part of online life, and increasingly, as the difference between online and offline blurs, into all computing life;

Yahoo, it appears at the moment anyway, will pursue Google, but my guess is they will begin to partner with someone before long, starting a flurry of partnerships from the other usual suspects.Eventually (in my estimation), we’ll have the online component of each partnered with an offline (read: hardware) component for those companies who can—Yahoo with HP, Google with Dell, MS with… themselves or maybe everyone, for example. We’ll have boxes that are integrated in various ways with other devices (stereo, car, phone) and a halo of online services backing them up, keeping them synched. Apple, I believe, will be the anomaly—and the leader—in this movement (along with Google, but from the opposite direction).

The upcoming preview of Tiger, the new Mac OS, is rumored to be more fully integrated with online services. The finder is expected to be updated. .Mac is long overdue for a refresh and deepening of services. And, the release of Airport Express is… odd. Synchronicity.All of these things point to a course shift away from broad usage devices (like iMacs) and toward specialization—Powerbooks for powerusers, Powermacs for professionals, eMacs for ‘nodes’ and… what.What’s the hole that these things point to—integration with online services, more metadata (new Finder) with online capability, and a device that pushes the data anywhere in the home? Hmm. I won’tsuggest specifics, but I will say it would need to have storage for photos and mom’s recipes, connection with television (Tivo-ized), and built-in wireless. Maybe a monitor. Maybe input devices —but not necessarily.Guess we’ll know soon enough.