Do Engines and the Future of Web Applications

Or, What I Have In Common With Craig Silverstein.

I’ve been enjoying John Battele’s The Search, a history of the search engine business from Archie to Google. He quotes Google’s first employee, Craig Silverstein, as saying, “I would like to see the search engines become like the computers in Star Trek. You talk to them and they understand what you’re asking.”

This is exactly what I’ve often said I want, except that I would extend the concept beyond search engines to computers in general. This leads me to a Grand Prediction On The Future Of Computing. I call it “Do Engines.” No, seriously, stay with me here. Google has gotten pretty close to the Star Trek computer when it comes to one specific task, namely, searching for information. The Google search box lets you tell the computer “find this” and it gets what you want.

The next stage must be the ability to say “do this” and have the computer know what you want, as in “email my résumé to Craig Silverstein.” Natural-language processing has so far had little success at this. (Battele cites GNP Development, a product that added natural-language spreadsheet formulas to to Lotus 1-2-3, but it didn’t catch on.) I believe that now, with the advent of web-based applications for desktop tasks such as word processing and spreadsheets, the “do engine” can become a reality. Instead of digging through menus and dialog boxes to find a command or setting to achieve the effect you want, you just type in what you want and click “do.”

This can leverage the vastness of the web much like open-source software. If I want to accomplish a specific task with my computer, I might search on Freshmeat, CPAN, or the Common Lisp Directory to find a piece of code that does what I want. If a web-based application has a programmable API with that kind of user community, the same advantages come to everyone who uses them. Therefore, the successful web-based applications will be the ones that make it possible for users to extend them beyond what the original desigers imagined. Google Maps mashups are a perfect example of this, but the trend at the moment seems to be simply porting traditional desktop applications to JavaScript, e.g. Google Spreadsheets. By leveraging the input of millions of users, a web application can “know” how to do common tasks the same way a search engine “knows” how to find things.