The next big thing, part 2: Taking the web out of web applications

Part of an ongoing series.

A web application is just a stateless1 application that responds to various requests by performing actions and providing resources. There’s no fundamental reason an application must only communicate over HTTP. Web applications are going to start adding alternative methods of interaction, and I think the first common one will be email.

Perhaps an example will best illustrate this:

Like many web forums, posts to Mosuki‘s discussion forums get mailed out in email. But, unlike any other web forums I know of, they also behave like mailing lists. All the emails have a reply-to header with an email address that identifies the message, the recipient, and the action to be taken if that email address is used. In this case, the contents of a reply email are posted to the forum exactly as if a reply had been posted via the website.

In other words, the action “post a message” can be accessed via a web page and a browser or via a reply-to header and your mail client.

There are other examples of this separation between input/output channels and the application logic. The most obvious is Twitter, which of course can be interacted with via HTTP or SMS2. And the Son of Sam project intends to let you “use modern concepts like handlers, requests, responses, state machines” to interact with email.

Confirm a Facebook friend request, RSVP to an Evite, revert a Wikipedia edit, or reassign a bug report, just by replying to an email or sending an SMS.

There are a number of technical issues inherent a system like this.  An application’s framework has to handle multiple input channels, and massage email bodies, HTTP requests, and other input into a least common denominator “request.” Authenticating a user via email, an intrinsically forgeable medium, and protecting against spam, are non-trivial challenges. And a suite of templates suddenly gets a lot more complex when it has to provide views for multiple types of interfaces3 .

This blurring of the line between email, HTTP, SMS, and other communications is not new, strictly speaking. But I think it will become commonplace and even expected. Rather than writing a modern (MVC, stateless, REST-ful, &c.) web application, people will be writing modern (MVC, stateless, REST-ful, blah, blah, blah) applications that have web interfaces, email interfaces, and whatever other interfaces they need.

Stay tuned for the next installment of The next big thing: Taking the relational out of relational databases.

  1. More or less stateless, that is, authentication tokens like cookies notwithstanding. []
  2. As well as more standalone apps than you can shake a stick at. []
  3. Generating text and HTML responses for email that look good and work well in the top 75% of desktop and web email clients is a lot harder than testing a site’s HTML in Firefox, IE, Safari and Opera. []