Life Without Desktop Software

Illustration: Mick Wiggins
I'd written this kind of story before. My editor asked me to give up the programs on my PC for a week and rely instead only on Web-hosted applications. Afterward, I could go back to my "real" programs and report on my amusing experiences with the online substitutes.

But my little adventure had an unexpected ending: Three weeks later, I was still living on the Web, with no plans to return permanently to Office or most of the other productivity applications I used to find indispensable.

Sure, online applications can't do certain things--like rip and burn CDs, or capture screen shots. But for most of my work, the convenience of storing and editing my documents and e-mail online compensates well for the drawbacks and missing features of Google Docs, Zoho Office, Gmail, and the like. Google and Zoho provided all the tools I needed, and other sites such as ThinkFree offer similar features see 10 Outstanding Web-Hosted Applications.

The Web may not replace your traditional desktop apps if your needs go beyond basic e-mail, word processing, and spreadsheet tasks, or if your Net hookup is slow. But you may be surprised at how much you can do in a browser.

Moreover, online office suites let you do something that locally installed apps can't: collaborate with others on documents in real time, regardless of each person's physical location. Here's how I became a true believer--and what you can expect if you take the plunge.

The End of an Addiction

My name is Scott, and I'm an Outlookoholic. While I can take or leave the rest of Microsoft's office suite, the mere prospect of relinquishing my precious desktop e-mail client and personal information manager gave me agita.

Nevertheless, I configured Gmail to start picking up the POP3 mail that I previously used Outlook to download. Since I had set up Outlook to leave messages on the server for two weeks, Gmail gathered up almost all of my current e-mail business, smoothing the transition significantly. It was easy to configure Gmail to use my POP3 account's reply-to address instead of my Gmail address, too. No one noticed that Outlook was out and Gmail was in.

Get all of your mail in Gmail by configuring the service to download messages from each of your Gmail and POP3 accounts.
Get all of your mail in Gmail by configuring the service to download messages from each of your Gmail and POP3 accounts.

I did have to adjust to using Gmail's labels--topic tags you create and assign to messages that remain in the user's inbox--instead of Outlook's folders to organize my mail, but now that I've gotten the hang of them, I prefer them. With labels, new incoming messages in the same thread receive the same label automatically (I can add other labels, too), and the entire thread always comes back into my inbox along with the new message. As a result, I archive mail intrepidly, knowing that it will reappear when needed. I still have to deal with my inbox daily, but now it's almost always practically empty.

Finally, I exported my Outlook contacts and calendar to CSV files (for step-by-step instructions on how to do this, see "Import Your Contacts to Gmail"), imported them into Gmail and Google Calendar, respectively--and just like that I was Outlook-free.

Gmail doesn't offer an easy way to import your old e-mail from desktop clients (this would be great, guys), but the couple of times I needed to see an old message, I simply fired up Outlook, took a look, and then shut it down again. People who use IMAP e-mail wouldn't even have this problem, as all IMAP mail is stored on the server, and Gmail can easily gather it there.

Replace Outlook online by using a combination of Google Calendar (above), Gmail, and Google Notebook.
Replace Outlook online by using a combination of Google Calendar (above), Gmail, and Google Notebook.

At the outset, I worried about losing Outlook's ability to integrate e-mail and calendar tasks. You can drag an Outlook message and drop it on your calendar to create an appointment; Outlook places the body of the e-mail in the appointment description and uses the message subject as the appointment subject. But Google is even better: Choose Create Event while viewing a Gmail message, and the program will search the message for dates and times and fill in the various Calendar fields for you. This method works only if the message is written in English, however.

Words and Numbers

It's too soon to tell whether I will encounter a show-stopping shortcoming in Google Docs. I like the collaboration features: If someone I have invited to edit my document accepts and begins working on it, a little box appears at the bottom of the screen, informing me that the person is editing the document. The changes take effect when the editor clicks Save; and I can see the changes when I click Save or refresh the browser.

Zoho writer looks more like Word than Google Docs does, with document tabs, a button bar, and lots of formatting options.
Zoho writer looks more like Word than Google Docs does, with document tabs, a button bar, and lots of formatting options.

But I did run into problems. First, my documents printed with tiny headers and footers. Eventually I discovered that these were inserted by the browser (duh!), and I figured out how to make them go away. Also, neither Google Docs nor Zoho Writer could correctly display or print a tabular Word document that used space-bar characters--rather than tabs--to align table elements vertically. Both OpenOffice.org and Word rendered the file correctly.

And though you can send a Google document to someone in your contact list with a single click, Google Docs and Spreadsheets insisted that one PC World editor's address was invalid (it worked fine in Gmail, however).

If a glitch like that one leaves you reluctant to give up your desktop apps, you might like Zoho Office's plug-in for synchronizing local Office files with Zoho's server, making them available both online and off. Unfortunately, Zoho Show had trouble properly displaying several complex PowerPoint presentations. And Zoho Viewer mysteriously refused to open a 5MB PDF file, though its file size limit is 10MB and it had no difficulty reading other PDFs. (Many online applications do put a limit on permissible document size.)

Get organized using Google's handy Notebook application (above)-or Zoho's even more richly featured notebook application.
Get organized using Google's handy Notebook application (above)-or Zoho's even more richly featured notebook application.

Though I never got into using Microsoft's One Note for organizing research, I now rely heavily on Google Notebook. Zoho Notebook is even better--but using linked applications is just so easy. For example, I can send documents from Google Docs to Gmail with a single click; to mail a Zoho doc with Gmail, I must first save it to disk or manually cut and paste a Web link between the two.

Still, Zoho's suite of online tools includes several that are conspicuously absent from Google, including Zoho Creator for designing databases.

Wherever I Go, There I Am

Connectivity obviously matters with Web apps. Long flights and train rides are likely to separate you from your Web-hosted data (not an issue for me, as I bike between work and home).

Even this problem could vanish in the near future, however. Google's engineers are perfecting an offline synchronization plug-in, Google Gears. But to this point only Google's RSS feed reader is fully compatible with Google Gears.

Via Google Gears, Zoho Writer offers partial compatibility, permitting you to cache and view read-only versions of documents while offline. But by the time you read this, the company may offer full offline synchronization.

Another major concern about online apps: What happens if a natural disaster or server outage wipes out my data? Google says that it backs up data files almost as often as users change them, and Zoho's official response is "do not worry." But to be cautious, individuals should download and archive their key documents regularly--another reason why high-speed access is vital if you exchange desktop for Web apps.

Privacy concerns may scare off some people. You have to trust a third party to protect your unencrypted e-mail and other data on their servers (see "Is Google Too Big?").

But for me, the convenience outweighs the risk that Google will fumble the ball on security. I like being only an Internet hookup and a mouse click away from my documents on the Web.

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