Apps Versus Web Apps

December 09, 2011

Thirty years ago when I started programming professionally, online programming meant CICS on a mainframe somewhere. I worked with CICS and IMS for the first few years of my career as a COBOL programmer. I also dabbled a bit with an early 4GL called Nomad. What distinguished these early applications was an utter lack of graphical interface. Everything was text based. Usually the bottom two lines of the terminal display (which may have had only 24 or maybe 40 lines total) was devoted to a legend that told the user which function key performed what activity.

And we walked uphill both ways to the raised-floor, Halon fire-suppressed machine rooms to run our programs too.

In the early 1990s I did a tiny bit of client-server application development using PowerBuilder 3. On my own I toyed around with [VisualBasic](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_Basic "VisualBasic) 1.0. VB was the first development platform I bought for my self to use.

In 1996 I started working with a distributed object-oriented platform called Forte. In 1999 Forte was purchased Sun Microsystems. The power of Forte, and its language, TOOL, was having a complete end-to-end solution. You wrote serve components and client applications in the same IDE, and they communicated through Forte's middleware. What doomed Forte was its expense and that it was proprietary.

Both PowerBuilder and Forte produced Windows applications, client-server applications that ran on the end-users computer and communicated to backend processes over the network. A graphical tool was employed to build these applications, one that allowed you to position various UI elements on the screen and then wire them to functions.

Creating the interface was something tangible in a way. You assembled windows from component parts. There were buttons and drop-down lists and multi-select lists, radio buttons and check boxes, text areas and labels.

Starting in about 2004 I began to work exclusively with Java-based systems, and HTML applications. While Java the language has great similarity to TOOL, creating applications with HTML is nothing at all like PowerBuilder or Forte. CSS and Javascript have come a tremendous way - in the hands of skilled people wonderful interfaces can be realized. Conceiving the interface and figuring out how to conjure it up from HTML and CSS and Javascript is an artform.

I am moderately capable at building small webpages. This site has largely been handcrafted by yours truly. And I have built and maintain Sibylle's piano completely by hand. Creating true web applications is something I've never done, either professionally or personally.

Today I think I figured out one reason why I've never had the drive to build web applications. The process lacks the tangibility that creating client-server apps had. In the end the web app can look and act like a native application, but getting there is a vastly different process.

In the last week or so I've been playing around with iOS and I am loving every minute of it. This afternoon, while watching a pair of co-workers discuss visual changes to a web app, I had an epiphany: I like iOS development because it has the same tangibility as Forte had. You build your applications interface with buttons, and labels and so on.

In a way I feel like working iOS is like coming home. Conceptually, stateless applications haven't changed much in 30 years. The paradigms I used in CICS and IMS worked in client-server applications, just as they work in web applications and in native iOS or Android applications. But the added immediacy of building the interface in iOS adds something I've missed in development work for a long, long time.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.