Can you survive on online apps?
Online services are growing smarter by the day – but can they replace desktop applications? We spend a week working online to find out.
Source: Copyright © PC Pro, Dennis Publishing
If you believe the hype, the days of Office and Outlook are numbered. Forget Linux distributions and open source; now there’s a real alternative, and you just boot up your browser to try it. Online services and applications have grown up, and they’re ready to take over your daily business, help you communicate and manage your life. Why install when you can just connect?
Blame Google for building the momentum. Once it had launched its own email, chat, voice and mapping services, it seemed only a matter of time before it would go for Microsoft’s jugular with the launch of Google Docs & Spreadsheets.
It’s a nice idea, but does it work? PC Authority decided to put the hype to the test. For a week, I was asked to abandon my desktop apps and work using only their online equivalents. I’m a full-time freelance technology journalist, which means I effectively run a small business, and I also use computers as a part of my non-working life. Could a taskforce of online apps replace the ones I use every day? There was only one way to find out.
Notes, guidelines and assumptions
Time for some ground rules. For a seven-day period I’m to forsake all desktop apps and use only the apps and services I can run within a browser. I’m running Windows Vista Ultimate and IE7 on my main system, and Windows Vista Basic and Firefox on a laptop. I’m allowed to use Java applets that download into the browser, but the moment a program or service demands any extra-browser install or download it’s canned. I’m also forbidden to use my usual email package (Thunderbird) and PIM (Outlook).
One final note: all online services hinge on a solid Internet connection. If you live in Sydney or Melbourne or any of our other fine urban sprawls then you probably take this for granted, but living where I do, in an old house in a small country town, my connection suffers from the variable performance of the local exchange. Theoretically, my ADSL2 connection runs at up to 8Mb/s, but it does so in much the same way that I can run at speeds of up to 30Km/h. For a short period it might be possible, but there’s a lot of stalling and wheezing before and after.
First, a little preparation. I’ve exported my Outlook calendar to an online-friendly CSV format, and I’ve got my POP3 settings ready to type in. I decide to kick off with Google, using Gmail for email, Google Calendar as my PIM and Google Docs & Spreadsheets instead of my workhorse applications, Word and Excel.
I’ve actually been using Gmail for a while, but mainly as a backup bucket where I can forward all my mail and search through it when necessary. Integrating my regular POP3 email is surprisingly easy, and as I can respond from my regular work address nobody on the outside will notice the difference. Sadly, I do. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the look and feel – it’s functional, but ugly, and I prefer the standard Outlook view to Google’s message-thread approach. Still, it’s speedy and it works.
Google Calendar seems a more enticing proposition. It sucks in my CSV and my appointments are right where I expect them. Sadly, it won’t handle my Outlook task list, so I’ve added deadlines as appointments by hand.
The big shock is Google Docs & Spreadsheets. I played a little with Writely nearly two years ago, but the Google Docs & Spreadsheets word processor still seems frighteningly spartan. For now, I’m making notes, so the limited fonts and formatting capabilities aren’t an issue, but I’m troubled that I can’t locate a word count option. I eventually find it lurking in the File menu, and I’m surprised to discover that it not only gives me all the usual counts, but also a standard readability score. My other necessities – a spellcheck and Find and Replace – are easy to track down. Google Docs might not be feature-rich, but it does what I need.
After a day of web-based research and note-taking, I feel a little claustrophobic in my Google universe. I’ve maximised my browser, and I’m navigating between Gmail, Calendar and Docs & Spreadsheets using the links at the top of the page. It’s functional, but also a bit white, text-heavy, colourless and boring. Would a little upbeat design hurt?
Today, I’m off for a quick chat with my mortgage broker. This isn’t the sort of appointment I’m likely to forget, but having signed in to Gmail and Google Calendar at the start of the day, Calendar gives me a handy reminder 20 minutes before. While I’m away from my desk, I’m checking my inbox using the browser built into my run-of-the-mill Sony Ericsson mobile phone. It’s a bit slow, and I wouldn’t want to have to compose any long replies, but it means I can relax for half-an-hour in the local café without worrying about work. Meanwhile, my emails are still going to Gmail’s safe, central store.
Back to work, and it’s time to get some actual writing done. Google Docs & Spreadsheets does offer basic styling and formatting, but I’m still finding the GUI and the lack of font choices are getting me down. Again, this isn’t a disaster – as long as my clients can edit my text, it doesn’t really matter how it looks. However, were I preparing business reports or creating documents that were going to be passed around, I wouldn’t be happy. I can see the benefits of Google Docs & Spreadsheets as a tool for quick, collaborative drafts, but as a serious competitor to Word? Who are the Google-nuts trying to kid? And where has the keyboard shortcut to make an em dash gone?
One final hurdle. I’m writing a game review, and need to include screenshots.
I download these from a PR press source, but I still need to resize and resave them before I send them on to my editor. Luckily, Picnik – the plucky online photo-editor – saves the day. Uploading, resizing and resaving an image is much, much slower than the batch-convert process I use in Paint Shop Pro, but it works and I’m reasonably impressed. I see myself coming back to Picnik later in the week.
This morning, I’m editing a draft of a longer feature, ready for submission. The quirks and drab presentation of Google Docs & Spreadsheets are becoming exhausting, and not being able to do a word count on chunks of text is a real annoyance. Frankly, I’m itching to get back to Word or AbiWord, my usual weapons of choice. Still, I’ve found one bonus. It’s spectacularly easy to email the finished copy without leaving the application. I know you can do this with Word and Outlook, too, but the integration with Gmail and its contacts is very smooth.
Having polished off the feature, it’s time to give the spreadsheet component a spin. It’s the end of the month, and my accounts need attention. The good news is that, on importing my multisheet accounts spreadsheet, all sheets are present, everything looks as it should and none of the calculations have gone awry.
Sadly, while my spreadsheet looks like it does in Excel, it certainly doesn’t behave like it. I can’t just type a formula into a cell, select the target cells and watch as it all adds up: I have to click the formula link in the taskbar, select the formula from the list and then select the cells. The formatting controls are inconsistent, and the Google application keeps reformatting dates from my preferred format (20-Jul) to its default (20/07/2007). You can’t easily drag and drop cells around, and I seem to be waiting for quite some time while an “updating” message sits in the top-left of the spreadsheet. At one point, it actually crashes.
Overall, Google’s spreadsheet application feels a little old-fashioned and clunky. As with the word-processing component, I can see why you might want to use it as a quick scratchpad or to show and share a spreadsheet, but anyone suggesting it’s a real alternative to Office is, frankly, deluded.
This sort of admin work is always boring, so to spice things up I normally listen to a little music. Obviously, iTunes and Windows Media Player are out of the question, so I resort to LastFM. It’s a great service, and I’m enjoying its selection of tracks on an alt-country/Americana theme, but it all goes horribly wrong when I follow its suggestion to personalise the service. This requires a download, instantly breaking my week-long embargo. Still, LastFM, it was fun while it lasted.
Sorry, Google – I’m giving you the push. Yahoo’s Mail and Calendar services have stolen me away. Yahoo’s new mail interface, currently in beta, is a close match to Outlook, and I can still access my normal POP3 mail account – Yahoo Mail even colour-codes the incoming emails to differentiate between accounts.
If Gmail is a little like staying in a hostel, this is more like hiring a holiday cottage: it doesn’t feel exactly like home, but it’s close enough for comfort.
Sadly, there are still problems. First, Yahoo Mail has issues downloading new messages from my POP3 server. A little searching in the Help files reveals this is because my POP3 provider doesn’t support the “LAST” command correctly. The only workaround is to ask Yahoo Mail to download all messages and delete once it does so, which sadly blows my Gmail archiving. I get around this by setting my POP3 account to forward all mail to my Gmail address.
More seriously, Yahoo Mail won’t allow me to respond to incoming mail from my regular POP3 address unless I pony up for a premium account. I refuse, so any correspondence in the next two days will have to come from my most unbusiness-like Yahoo address.
As I’m ringing the changes, I’m also looking for an alternative to Google Docs & Spreadsheets. ThinkFree’s Office seems like a contender, particularly as the Write app is a dead-ringer for Word 2003. However, even after a lot of checking through the online help and FAQs, I’m unable to get the drop-down menus to work correctly, and it’s painfully slow to load and edit files. Back to the drawing board, I think.
I may well be addicted to trying new online apps. Although Yahoo handles my calendar, tasks and contacts, I’ve been tempted away by 30 Boxes, an alternative online calendar app with an interesting Mac OS X look and feel. There’s a lot to like about 30 Boxes, not least the clean interface and the intelligent way it can translate hastily typed text into an appointment. I’m experimenting by using it as a shared diary between myself and my better half (who, as a design-conscious Mac user, wouldn’t even spit on Google or Yahoo’s apps).
More deadlines today, so I’ve moved onto Zoho for my word-processing needs. It sits in a middle-ground between Google Docs & Spreadsheets and ThinkFree Write, looking more like a fully functional word processor, but with Google’s rapid response. Zoho also includes many features I wouldn’t have expected from an online word processor, like the template gallery and proficient formatting and styling features. My only complaints are that it’s difficult to change the default styles, and that once again the word count is unable to cope with blocks of text. I’m beginning to miss the details of my Microsoft apps, not to mention on-the-fly spellchecking and auto-correct.
Zoho offers a fairly bewildering range of online apps, and I can’t resist a look at the PowerPoint-style presentation package. I wouldn’t like to put together a full-scale presentation using Zoho Show, but I could certainly use it to knock some bullet points and images into a few slides, share them with colleagues and take that back as the basis for a proper PowerPoint. In fact, the creative limitations imposed by Zoho Show – fewer formatting controls, less flashy animations – might make for more disciplined and engaging presentations. Or is that just me?
It’s Saturday and I’m on a family day out. My bargain-basement mobile is set up to receive my Yahoo mail, although I don’t expect anything urgent over the weekend, and I have my digital camera in tow (it’s my daughter’s first trip to the beach).
Getting back, I trust the Windows Scanner and Camera wizard to get the pics on to my system, but what to do with them from there? Uploading all my images to Picnik might take forever! However, I realise I can upload the images to my Flickr account and access them with Picnik from there. This works out to be quite a practical online image-editing workflow – slower than simply using Photoshop, but not by much.
Better still, I’m surprised by how functional and effective Picnik is. The Exposure and Sharpening tools are better than those of many consumer image-editing apps five or six years ago, and the Create tab contains a fine range of effects that you can try instantly without ruining your shot. Having optimised my snaps, I then simply save them back to Flickr. Combine Picnik’s excellent functionality with probably the nicest GUI of all the online apps I’ve tried, and you have a good example of what online apps could be. Faltering connection speeds are an issue, but I could imagine using Picnik while away from my desk, safe in the knowledge that my photos will be there on Flickr when I return.
Sunday, and it’s time for a personal project. I’ve had some video clips from a 2006 holiday that I’ve been meaning to use for ages, and there’s an online image-editing service, Jumpcut, that I’m itching to try. I’ll admit to a little preparation here: I’d imported the 60-minute tape into Windows Movie Maker and saved a few clips as individual projects, which I now upload to Jumpcut.
Here’s the first problem: uploading video of any quality is a painfully slow business, and working with it also takes patience, as Jumpcut often needs to stop for a quick think. On the plus side, the drag-and-drop thumbnail interface makes it easy to put shots in order – you simply drag sliders and arrows around to trim each clip, and applying titles, effects and transitions is straightforward.
Within ten minutes, I have a quick mock-up ready to go, and I export it. The only problem is that it hasn’t exported properly, and when I click on play it only runs halfway through the movie. I might be tempted to take a look, but my free time is running short. I can see that the community features of Jumpcut are a lot of fun, but to be honest I’d rather use Pinnacle Studio or even Windows Movie Maker to put my masterworks together.
What did I learn?
So, after a week using online apps, would I be happy to leave my desktop apps behind for good? Sorry, but no. There are benefits: I can access my documents from anywhere, on nearly any computer, using the same application, without having to transfer files or email them to myself. I can keep all my email trickling into a central store and access it from my desktop PC, my laptop, any other PC, or even my mobile phone. I can build up a calendar and anyone can look at it using just a browser. And were I involved in more collaborative projects, online applications might make it easier to work with my colleagues. I could do all of this with Windows, Internet Explorer and Office, but the online apps just feel better tied into a coherent online world.
But there are distinct downsides. My dodgy Internet connection doesn’t help, but the delays become really irritating. There are delays while I load the initial page, sign in and upload or download; delays while the connection stalls as I access a menu option or select a formatting feature. We’re worlds ahead of the browser-based apps of ten years ago – at least the delays are measured in seconds, not minutes – but you and I didn’t invest in speedy PC hardware only to get stuck behind a slow connection; we did it so that we could have everything we wanted in an instant.
Even bigger barriers are features, look and feel. There’s an argument that online apps only need to deliver a fraction of the features of their desktop brethren, but while Zoho and Google Docs & Spreadsheets are getting there, they’re still a long way behind Microsoft Office, even in the basics. And few of the apps (bar Google Calendar, 30 Boxes and Picnik) had the sort of seamless GUI I’d expect from a modern desktop app.
Finally, there’s one argument that just doesn’t hold water. Sure, online applications are free, but so are their open-source equivalents and I’ll take OpenOffice, AbiWord and The GIMP over the competition here any day of the week. I like Zoho, Yahoo Mail and Picnik, but going online full-time? Let’s put it this way: as I write, I’m back in the familiar world of Thunderbird, Outlook and Office, and do you know what? I couldn’t be happier.
Locked in the System
You might have noticed the big players in the online apps field – Google, Yahoo and to a lesser extent Zoho – are increasingly offering a suite of complementary services designed to hold you within a single brand. Choose Google Mail, and you’ll soon be tempted by Google Calendar, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Google Talk and so on. Choose Yahoo Mail, and you’re more likely to run with Yahoo Calendar, Yahoo Messenger and Flickr instead.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Other services in a brand’s portfolio are nearly always just one click away, and you usually need to sign in only once. And Yahoo and Google apps cleverly integrate with others in the same stable, so you can work with Yahoo email contacts from your Yahoo calendar, for example.
However, there are implications. First, no one brand offers the full range of services. Google comes close, but its communication services aren’t as popular as Yahoo’s and Picasa isn’t as strong as Flickr. Yahoo has all the basics covered, but doesn’t plan to offer an online office service.
There are also serious privacy and security concerns. Do you really want to trust one company with your web-searching habits, your emails, photos and office documents? If someone discovers your ID, your online life would be laid bare.
Still, this sort of online app empire-building won’t go away. The big players aren’t trying to compete with Microsoft on the OS or application level, but they can compete on services, and the more you use Google or Yahoo’s apps the more Windows simply becomes a means of running those services. Bandwidth, features and GUIs might hold the online application back for now, but you can be sure this won’t always be the case – and Microsoft knows it.