I spent this weekend with two friends crazy enough to join me in a 48 hour coding sprint for the Django Dash. We competed in the dash last year and placed 5th. Our goal was to move up in the rankings this year (competition is stiff, wish us luck!). Our team had the highest number of commits, but I can’t say how many of them can be justified as quality commits… especially since we keep track of our TODO file inside the git repository!
This year, we created a project called Great Big Crane. (I don’t know why we called it this.) The code is stored on Github, and we set up a splash page at greatbigcrane.com. We don’t have a live demo for reasons I’ll get into shortly.
This project’s primary purpose is to help managing buildouts for Python projects, most especially Django projects. It helps take care of some of the confusing boilerplate in buildout configuration. It also allows one click access to common commands like running bootstrap or buildout, syncdb, manage.py, or migrate, and running the test suite associated with a buildout. It does most of these actions as jobs in the background, and pops up a notification when it completes. It even keeps track of the results of the latest test suite run so you can see at a glance which of your projects are failing their tests.
One of the most intriguing things this application does is open a text editor, such as gvim, to edit a buildout if you need more control than our interface provides. It does this be queuing a job that executes the text editor command on the server.
Wait, What? It can be a bit creepy when clicking a button in a web application fires up an arbitrary program on your computer.
This entire app is designed to run on localhost. It’s set up for developers to manage their own projects. It doesn’t support authentication (this is why we don’t have a live demo), and the server has full access to the local filesystem. It’s meant to support your local IDE, not to provide an online IDE. The entire app is therefore super fast (no network delay), and switching from it to my text editor to several terminals became quite normal as I was developing on it (yes, the buildout for Great Big Crane runs just fine from inside Great Big Crane ;).
So yes, you’re expected to run this web app locally. Why would anybody want to do this? Is it a sensible thing to do?
The alternative to what we’ve done here would be to code the whole thing up as a GUI application of some sort. I have experience with most of the Python GUI toolkits, and I can’t say that I “enjoy” working in any of them. I’m not sure I enjoy working in HTML either, but I do a lot of it. HTML 5 with CSS 3 is certainly a powerful and reasonable alternative to modern graphical toolkits.
I’ve been coding HTML for so long that I don’t know what the learning curve is for it, but I’m definitely more comfortable working with it than I am with TK, QT, GTK, or WxWidgets, all of which take a long time to learn how to code properly. Possibly I’m just stagnating, but I think I’d prefer to develop my next “desktop” app as a webapp intended to run locally, rather than study these toolkits again. Indeed, because I think I’d prefer to do that, I started coding my last project in PyQT, just to fight the stagnation tendency. PyQT is an incredibly sensible toolkit, after you have learned how to make sense of it, but it’s not as sensible as the new web standards. Another advantage is that if you ever decide you want to make the app network enabled, you’re already running an app server, and using standard web technologies to push it to the cloud.
If it makes sense to replace local desktop apps with a local server, does it also make sense to replace web applications with a local system?
I’m not a huge fan of web applications because they are slow for me. I have a good connection (by Canadian standards, which aren’t high…). Yet Gmail is slower than Thunderbird, Freshbooks is too slow for me to justify paying for it, and github, while fascinating, is also slow compared to local access. The only webapp I have tested that I consider responsive is Remember The Milk, a popular todo list. I’m not certain what they do to make it so responsive, but I suspect Google Gears or HTML 5 localstorage must be involved.
Local storage. I’ve written about this before (I must be getting repetitive). My idea then was that offline enabled webapps are just as responsive as desktop apps. But the current available paradigm, using HTML5 localstorage, requires a lot of overhead normally involving manual syncing between the browser data and the server. What if I was running the app locally instead? Then I could just design it as a “normal” web app, without having to put extra thought into designing and maintaining local storage in the browser. It would be super responsive when I access it from my computer. More interestingly, it would also be available from remote computers. If I accessed it across my LAN using another laptop or my phone’s wifi, it would still be acceptably responsive. And if I happen to need access from the library or my friend’s computer, I can log in remotely, and still have approximately the same level of responsiveness that I currently get by logging into a server in the cloud.
This isn’t a new idea. It’s been presented as a “gain control of your own data” alternative to the privacy and control fears that Google, Facebook, and Apple (among others) have been creating. (<a href="http://www.h-online.com/open/features/Interview-Eben-Moglen-Freedom-vs-the-Cloud-Log-955421.html"this Is a nice discussion). There are a lot of clear advantages of moving data local, but there are also disadvantages. The nice thing about cloud storage is not having to worry about data backup. The “access anywhere” paradigm is nice, too, although that is not ruled out with running a home webserver. Zero install and end users not having to think about dependencies is also nice.
Overall, I’m finding more and more reasons to bring our apps home, where we have control of them. Such cycles are common in the technology industry. Dumb terminals mainframes. Personal computers. Business networks. The Internet. The cloud. Off-board video/On-board video. Network cards? On-board nic. Hardware modems or Software modems. Personally, I think the cycle away from the cloud is just beginning. I think the company that finally conquers Google will be doing it by giving you back control of your data. I’ve never been totally comfortable with the whole web application idea (as a user — they’re fine to develop!). I’m still trying to identify what my reasons are, but in the meantime, we experimented with the idea by developing Great Big Crane as a local web application.