Once upon a time desktop apps reigned supreme, they were the only game in town. When the calendaring web app 30 Boxes was released in 2006, a couple of months before Google Calendar, the idea of a web-based calendar was still novel. Back then, your calendar was managed by a native desktop app like Microsoft Outlook or iCal. Now Google Calendar is probably1 the most popular calendar app there is, and desktop and laptop sales are declining overall. People are using their mobile devices for tasks they once would have used a desktop or a laptop for.
The post-PC era means the desktop, and to a lesser extent, the web, are in decline, and mobile is on the rise. But what do we make of the fact that some areas of native desktop software seemingly have a gigantic lead that doesn’t seem to be budging?
We now have three separate, distinct platforms: web, mobile, and desktop. Desktop was here first, so it’s inevitably losing marketshare as the other two gain it. The web came next, so it’s also losing it as mobile gains it. But things aren’t as simple as they seem when you look closely: Desktop software hasn’t really changed much since the web and mobile came along. The top 10 free apps in the Mac App Store include both the iWork and Microsoft Office suites, and the top paid apps include both Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro X2. These are the same apps that would have been the most popular 20 years ago, long before mobile, and before the web really took off as an app platform. The iOS App Store, on the other hand, is dominated by games and social media apps (although both Google Docs and Gmail make the top ten).
The Types of Apps in Transition
If the desktop app market hasn’t changed that much, then where is the transition to mobile coming from? The simplest answer is that many of the new use cases that arose with the web, the biggest example being social networking, have transitioned from the web to mobile3.
This categorization isn’t perfect, for example, it doesn’t account for chat apps like AIM and ICQ which were native desktop apps, not web apps, and have now been replaced by mobile apps like Messages, Slack, and WhatsApp. “Network-enabled apps” is probably a more precise term, but web apps is fine for shorthand. The collaborative nature of the web still captures the spirit of the native desktop chat apps.
The contrast between the decline of native desktop chat apps, and social media on the web, compared to the continued relevance of traditional desktop use cases, like Logic Pro X, and Final Cut Pro X, where it’s mobile that’s struggling for relevance, highlights a flaw in the post-PC narrative of a declining desktop. If that narrative were accurate, you’d expect to see a decline in all desktop use cases that looks something like the desktop chat apps, but we don’t.
The Platform Advantage Matrix
What’s happening isn’t a transition, it’s a migration. Apps are migrating to the platform whose advantages best fit their use case. I’ve tried to summarize the advantage of each platform in a single word4:
- Desktop: Power
- Mobile: Simplicity
- Web: Collaboration5
The desktop is for apps with long lists of features, the defining characteristic of powerful apps is that they support an ecosystem of third-party plugins. The web has the best features for allowing people to view and edit the same content, the URL is the easiest way to share anything. Mobile is the gold standard of making apps easy to install, easy to run, easy to use, and has convenience features like prefetching.
Simplicity is desirable in all apps, except for those used for creation, where it runs contrary to the flexibility necessary for expression. So mobile apps are the baseline, and the best the platform for an app, unless one of the advantages of the other two platforms is more important: If its main purpose is to be powerful or to facilitate collaboration. The reason so many apps support both mobile and web, without having a native desktop app, is because collaboration and simplicity complement each other, while power is at odds with both6.
Apps & Their Platforms
Here are some examples of apps categorized by the platform advantage that’s their highest priority:
- Collaboration: Figma, Slack, Trello
- Power: Adobe After Effects, Final Cut Pro X, Logic Pro X
- Simplicity: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter
- Special: OmniFocus, Procreate, Webflow
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all end up in simplicity, because while social media is inherently collaborative, the space is so competitive that zero compromises in the all important simplicity category ends up being the highest priority. Trello and Slack are the inverse, with less competition for their categories, their essences is reflected as collaborative software. Of course, Slack and Trello also have mobile apps, but their native apps feel more like web apps than truly native first apps, because collaboration is their highest priority. Almost all of the collaboration and simplicity apps have both mobile and web apps (the only exception is Figma), while none of the power apps7 have either mobile or web apps, because while simplicity and collaboration are in alignment, power conflicts with both.
Figma is actually quite powerful, but it ends up in the collaboration category because that’s it’s defining trait. You could say that Figma’s marketplace bet is that the interface design industry will sacrifice some power in order to collaborate more effectively. Notably, an app like Figma still leaves room for other more powerful desktop apps in the same category, because there will always be some people that want more of the power that Figma sacrifices in order to be more effective at collaboration.
There’s also a special category for apps that don’t fit anywhere else. This mostly illustrates flaws in this exercise. The software landscape is messy. Every app is made up of many small decisions, and they reflect their creators, just as much as they reflect the marketplace. Any attempt to pigeonhole them is bound to run into some problems. But the idea is, if you zoom out far enough, some patterns emerge that can help us better understand the platform migration that’s underway today.
The goal of this piece is to predict where software is going. It’s common today to predict that mobile, and to a lesser extent, the web, are replacing the desktop. Steve Jobs famously said the desktop is going to be like trucks8, but I think a more direct comparison is that the desktop is going to be like the command line. The command line was once the only interface computers had, then the GUI came along, and now that’s the main way the vast majority of users interact with their computers. But that wasn’t the end for the command line. It’s continued to be an indispensable tool for developers, to the degree that software development is almost impossible without it9.
The future of the desktop might be like the command line. That may sound like faint praise, but that depends on the prism you’re looking through. If the desktop continues to be the best place to do the most exciting things you can do with a computer, things like 3D, audio, motion graphics, programming, and video—all of which haven’t budged since the introduction of mobile—then it will be the most important platform to do the things I care about the most. Sure, I’ll still have an iPhone and an iPad, and I’m sure there will be some great creative tools on those platforms, just like there are some great GUI and web tools for programming that aren’t on the command line today. But if the desktop continues to be the heart and soul of where creative work is done, then that’s the platform that will have won to me.
Summarizing the advantages of each platform with a single word is inherently flawed, because it doesn’t account for a bunch of secondary characteristics that each platform has. For example, the web is also the easiest way to make an app available on any device, and mobile grants access to sensors and data that aren’t available anywhere else. But the goal here is just to distill the essence of a platform into a single word, in order to create a framework that we can use to look for broad patterns. ↩︎
Collaboration is a much broader category than it at first appears, encompassing not just obvious examples like Google Docs, but also, content management systems, and any kind of employee portal. The majority of software used to run businesses is collaboration software. ↩︎
Power is at odds with collaboration because, the more powerful an app is, the harder it is to use, and the harder it is to use, the fewer people who can use it, which means fewer people to colloborate with. ↩︎
The lack of a command line appears to be singlehandedly holding back programming on an iPad. ↩︎