2012: The Year The Desktop App Died

We've seen the last of the great desktop apps. The end of one of computing's longest eras.

"Which email program should I get? Which browser? Which messaging app? What about a music player? I hate iTunes."

These questions used to be interesting, and I used to enjoy answering them. Finding and customizing desktop clients, be they feature-rich MP3 players like Winamp or Foobar or only-the-nerds-know gems like Trillian or Miranda for instant messages, or Infranview for images, FoxIt reader for PDFs and even little utilities like Caffeine, an app for keeping your Mac from going to sleep, was a full-on pastime.

To be a tech enthusiast used to be to know about these things — to have and share a set of software tools that made your computer work better than everyone else's. It was like being part of a club, and the benefits were real. You knew things that others didn't.

But last week, when a friend asked for an alternative to Apple's Mail app, I had a hard time answering. This should have been an easy question, and as recently as last year it was. But Sparrow, the app I would have recommended, is no longer in serious development (its makers were acqui-hired by Google). Thunderbird, the mail client from the guys who make Firefox, has been put out to pasture. Outlook is part of Microsoft's bloated and increasingly irrelevant office suite.

There are a few other apps in the line of succession for Sparrow's crown, but I found it hard — as did a few other tech-savvy friends — to explain why most people would really be better off for switching. Mail.app — the once-unthinkable default option. The best advice I could give was to use Gmail's web interface.

2012 has been a rough year for desktop clients. The promise of mobile, a brand-new multibillion-dollar app industry where consumers actually pay for apps and new millionaires are minted on a regular basis, has drawn scores of developers away from the hairy, disorganized world of traditional desktop apps and software licensing. The Mac App Store and the Windows Store (in Windows 8) are burgeoning not with a vibrant selection of alternatives to core OS apps but with small utilities, games, and single-purpose apps. They're stocked like mobile app stores, not collections of traditional desktop apps.

Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter have been beckoning their users back to web interfaces or mobile apps, and we have obliged. That mobile apps and web apps are the future has been taken as conventional wisdom since 2009 if not earlier; only now, however, is this shift wreaking the havoc it promised.

Chrome, an app so closely tied to the cloud that it crashed for users last time there was a Gmail outage, is well on its way to becoming the most popular browser, largely because it's good at making itself invisible. Firefox, the browser that became popular mostly just by adding tab support before the once-dominant (and insecure) Internet Explorer and allowing for power-user extensions, is on the wane for the first time in its history. Internet Explorer is finally decent enough that its users don't realize they're using it.

In fact, there is no strong case for or against any of the major browsers anymore. They all serve the same web apps ably, securely, and without getting in the way. Power users, to the extent that they still exist, use Chrome or even Apple's barebones Safari.

Where once we had foobar2000, Sonique, Winamp, MediaMonkey, and musikCube, we now have little reason to leave iTunes, unless it's for a thinly skinned web interface for a service like Spotify or Rdio, or a pure web service like Pandora. These apps are dying along with the concept of a locally stored media collection.

Where once we looked to Office, OpenOffice, AbiWord, and Lotus Symphony, now we type in Google Docs, a posting field on a website, or maybe TextEdit or Writeroom. A power-user app for document editing almost feels like a contradiction.

Trillian, Miranda, Pidgin, Digsby, and Adium, all still available and beloved by users, have given way to web-based Facebook and Gmail chat, or baked-in chat apps like iMessage. Development, even on the best ones, like Adium, has slowed to a crawl.

Email, which users and pundits have been begging for companies to "disrupt" for years, got a brief glimmer of hope in the form of Sparrow in 2011. The company did everything right, straddling the old-school app ecosystem and the Mac App Store and turning out a great product. In retrospect, Google's acquisition of the company and subsequent dead-ending of the product almost seems like they were rubbing it in. We won. Deal with it. See you on Gmail. (Or in our new Gmail app, which wasn't even developed by the Sparrow team!)

Even gaming fits the trend. PC-first games are rare and decreasingly notable. (A more common sight? Major, console-first games that are so buggy on PC that they're almost unplayable.) Steam, Valve's centralized game distribution platform that was violently rejected by hardcore gamers when it was introduced nearly 10 years ago, now appears to be PC gaming's only path forward. It's more like the Xbox Marketplace or the App Store than it is the PC pre-millennium gaming market it grew from.

The death of the desktop app will be complete when the next generation of desktop operating systems becomes standard. The latest version of Mac OS has made it abundantly clear that OS X and iOS are destined to become a unified product. The apps in Windows RT, the tablet version of Windows 8 that also serves as a tidy preview of what all of Windows will look like soon, leave little room for alternative core apps (and in the case of the browser, no room at all).

Kids raised on Windows 9 and (i)OS 11 won't be telling their parents to switch to Firefox or Opera, or trading FPS mods and Winamp skins. The concept of a desktop app might not even make sense to them.

For some consolation, know-it-all utility fiends should look to the mobile app stores. It may be a bubble — I suspect it is, and that Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook will be exerting more control over how people access content, not less — but it's there that people are actively trying to out-do the incumbents, churning out alternative browsers, email apps, messaging tools, maps, cameras and even calendars. There are dozens of alternative calling apps in the App Store alone.

But it's not the same. The user experiences of iPhone power users and regular users are far more similar that the experiences of software-obsessed Windows XP users and their less-savvy friends.

These particular kinds of power users may be also be lost to history, along with the apps they loved.

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