Desktop apps coming to the Web: Google

While rumours still abound about whether Google plans to offer its own online office suite to compete with Microsoft Office, at least one of the search giant's engineers is forecasting a time when today's native client applications will be delivered through the browser.

Speaking at a Sydney University school of information technologies seminar, Google Maps lead engineer Lars Rasmussen told of how his startup company had developed a desktop map browsing application in C++ before being acquired by Google.

"Google said, 'we like the Web, what can you do?'," Rasmussen said, adding that within three weeks his team had something "as good" which it had spent the last three years working on.

"Traditionally, a Web site is about flipping pages but we took a different approach with Maps which is one page of Javascript," he said. "Javascript allows rapid development, the end user doesn't need to install software, and it is cross platform. Maps has a richer interface, like a desktop application." Last week Google released the Maps service out of beta and re-branded it Google Local and with the release of a free mapping API, there are now "thousands" of Web sites integrating maps for diverse information like housing prices and hurricane tracking.

Rasmussen, a Google US employee now based in Sydney, said browsers are now mature enough for richer applications and will only improve to become more desktop-like, such as Google's Windows-based spatial information application, Google Earth.

"My crystal ball has a lot more things like that coming out in the next couple of years," he said. "Sometime in the future the now native client Google Earth application will be possible in a browser."

A number of people are now working on a Linux port of Google Earth, but Rasmussen did not offer a release date.

Rasmussen conceded that different browsers can result in needing workarounds to resolve any inconsistencies, but "compare the pain of getting Javascript code working on different browsers to the pain of porting C++ code from a PC to a Mac".

On the possibility of an online office suite, Rasmussen said: "My crystal ball has a lot of applications, but not an office suite. But there are 3000 people that work for Google."

Rasmussen also announced his "ulterior motive" for his presence at Sydney University - the opening of a new, fully-fledged development centre in the city, where a "significant part" of the development work for Maps is already done out of a serviced office.

"We asked Google to start an office in Sydney [and] we are starting to hire for Google Maps," he said, adding, much to the amusement of the audience, "one of these days we will do Google Maps for Sydney [which] is coming soon".

According to Rasmussen, Google's design philosophy centres on end user loyalty not money, going beyond the browser's lowest common denominator, to develop simple Web applications that are as dynamic as native applications, and to launch early and often to learn from users.

Rasmussen offered plain advice for people wanting to develop a Web application, "Don't break the simplicity of the Web" because that is what made it so popular in the first place.

"Google has an amazing infrastructure to do this [and] we have the power to process it; all we need are engineers," he said.

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Rodney Gedda

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