Cloud Services vs. Desktop Apps: What Fits Your Needs?


We all know the big 500 pound gorilla of the software-as-a -service world: Gmail. Google's cloud-based application has been capturing the attention (and the messages) of hundreds of millions of users since its 2004 beta launch. With 7 GB of storage space available for every user and the capability to be viewed from any browser on the planet, Gmail has defined what it means to be a successful cloud application.

But the really important question: is it the best messaging application?

For all the hoopla about the cloud, there haven't been a lot of comparisons between cloud apps like Gmail, Mint, and Pandora and their desktop equivalents like Thunderbird, Quicken, or iTunes -- except, of course, for the inevitable "cloud roolz, desktop sux" articles that dismissively sweep aside locally installed apps in favor for the cloud for the simplistic reason that they're cool and new.

But are cloud apps really better all of the time, just because they're cloud? Let's take a look at some popular cloud-based apps and their desktop counterparts, with the focus being to determine which app -- cloud or desktop -- is the better offering in its class.

Messaging

Let's just get this one out of the way right now. On the cloud, there's Gmail. With tight integration with calendaring, contacts, and other Google tools like Google Docs, this is a very hard app to beat. If you look at the entirety of the Google package, really, then it is impossible to beat. But, when looking at just the messaging features, the answer is not so clear cut.

Microsoft Outlook, for example, offers the best connectivity with Exchange servers and the growing install base of SharePoint servers out there. Despite the popularity of Gmail, there are still a lot of businesses that are leery about hosting their corporate data on outside servers. Messaging on local systems is much more attractive. Alternative servers like Open-Xchange and Alfresco can provide the same functionality as Exchange and SharePoint, so cost becomes even less of a factor.

Mozilla's Thunderbird is another very robust desktop client -- and, unlike Outlook, it can be used on Windows, OS X, and Linux. Thunderbird offers much of the same messaging functionality as Outlook and even Gmail, but for anything beyond that, there's a caveat: some tools must be added to a Thunderbird installation. For calendaring, for instance, users need to use either Lightning or Sunbird. The cost of Thunderbird -- free -- makes it very attractive, so it's a good option for home or small business users that access their messages from just a few set locations.

Enterprise users are probably going to be more comfortable with an in-house messaging solution, which means some form of non-cloud client/server arrangement. Home users, however, will be very well served by Gmail, especially if they expect any kind of mobility when accessing messages.

Productivity applications

In the old days, this would be easy: Microsoft Office. That's because no matter what tools were out there competing with any of the Office applications, it really all came down to file compatibility. Businesses, schools, and home users exclusively saved documents in .doc, .xls, or .ppt format, and so you would too, by golly.

But now the Open Document Format (ODF) is available, and even Office uses it, if somewhat begrudgingly; as a result, compatibility has become less of an issue when sharing files with others. It's not perfect yet, but it's definitely better. With that in mind, is Office still the better option?

In word processing, you might not want to go with Word. Creating documents is, honestly, not something you need a lot of bells and whistles to accomplish. OpenOffice.org (or LibreOffice) Writer has much of the same functionality as Word, and is available on multiple platforms. Google Docs is extremely limited in terms of word processing capabilities; its best feature is real-time collaboration. Writer is the best word processor for the right price: free.

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