By Stephen H. Wildstrom If you have ever had to peruse piles of mail on a Web e-mail program such as Hotmail, or used AOL.com to check your America Online (TWX) messages from work, you know how painful it can be.
You don't see a preview of the message text. Paging through a big in-box can take forever. And just moving messages to folders requires multiple steps. Corporate applications on the Web can prove an even greater nuisance. Used to manage travel, entertainment, and human-resources functions, these programs run slowly and clumsily.
"GALLING LIMITATIONS." Yet companies love them because they're easy and cheap to maintain. Because these applications require no software installation on employees' desktops or laptops, they eliminate the task of ensuring every machine has the latest version of the application and all its security patches. Plus, with Web apps, there's no worry about compliance and software licensing. It is also much easier to give traveling workers secure access to Web-based programs than to give programs running on their laptops safe access to data behind firewalls.
Thanks to all these advantages, use of Web apps continues to grow, despite their galling limitations. Now there's good news for both consumers and corporate users. The latest Web programs look and perform like traditional desktop ones such as Microsoft (MSFT) Office. The secret is "rich Internet application technology." The technology will likely make a huge impact in the business world, but some of the first deployments will go to consumer services.
A new Web mail program from America Online and a forthcoming one from Earthlink (ELNK) show the technology to good advantage. In some ways, the new AOL Web mail service surpasses the AOL software you install on your PC. In addition to offering superior speed, it displays all your folders in a pane to the left of the message list. You can move messages simply by clicking on them and dragging them to the appropriate folder. This won't sound like a big deal to users of Microsoft Outlook or other programs that run on your desktop. But it's a big change for Web mail.
EASY SCROLLER. The new Earthlink Web mail program, available to subscribers in June, takes a more dramatic step up. For example, the limitations of traditional Web programs often cause them to spawn multiple windows on your screen. With Earthlink mail, however, that doesn't happen.
The application, which bears a strong resemblance to Microsoft Outlook Express, lets you handle most tasks within a single, multipane window. All your mail appears in one easy-to-scroll-through list, rather than pages of 25 or so messages each. You can read the text of a selected message below the in-box list. You can also move messages by dragging them to folders, and resize the panes and columns by simply moving the dividers between them.
It will take a while for these richer Web apps to spread widely, especially in business. Enterprises have invested heavily in older Web-based programs and, with technology budgets tight, they will tend to leave alone things that work, even when they leave room for improvement.
MICROSOFT LAGS. Fortunately, companies such as Laszlo Systems (which designed the Earthlink mail program) and JackBe provide tools for the rapid conversion of traditional Web programs to rich Internet applications.
Not surprisingly, Microsoft, which bases its business on traditional desktop programs, isn't rushing into rich Internet apps. This comes as bad news for the large number of mobile workers who reach their corporate mail using the painful Outlook Web Access, which is not due for an overhaul for another 18 months or so. But almost everywhere else, the prospects for Web applications are brightening considerably. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek