If you can judge a technological epoch by old issues of PC World--and I like to think you can--the early 1990s were a pulse-pounding time for desktop software. Rifling through the vintage copies on my bookshelf, I'm struck by how many articles spotlight productivity apps. We did a breathless cover story on 1-2-3 for Windows (which we called "The World's Easiest Upgrade"), for instance. Ditto for Excel 4.0 ("The First Smart Spreadsheet") and Quattro Pro ("The Ultimate 3-D Spreadsheet").
Then software got predictable. Microsoft Office blew away whole categories where competition once thrived. Major applications went through so many upgrades that they eventually added all the features you wanted--and then larded themselves up with ones you didn't. Also, at bottom, many programs remained beasts of the disconnected era that predated the Web.
In 2007, though, software is back, bristling with a creativity and competitiveness reminiscent of the old days. I'm happily gorging on innovative apps that have one thing in common: They are really services that live on the Net, not programs that sit on my hard drive. (Actually, they have another thing in common: They're all free.)
The obvious virtue of Web services is how they let you get to their tools and to your documents from any PC. But the best of them bring fresh thinking to every aspect of productivity.
Lately, for instance, I've been wrangling projects in Remember the Milk, a task manager with a near-perfect balance of simplicity and power. Its Tags are much more efficient than Outlook's clunky Categories; and the whole service is available in a mobile version that works on my Treo, no syncing required.
RTM isn't the only Web app capable of doing smart things that old-line desktop rivals can't. The photo editor known as Picnik, for example, is nowhere near as fancy as Adobe's Photoshop Elements 5.0. But it can talk to the Flickr photo-sharing site seamlessly, letting you store photos in Flickr and tweak them in Picnik. And a third app, notebook.zoho.com, outdoes Microsoft OneNote with better features for sharing and publishing brainstorms.
Until recently, though, even the best Web services had a doozy of an Achilles' heel: They depended on the Net to function. That put them completely out of commission if you were on a plane--or if your connection or that of the service purveyor was on the fritz.
Which is why several companies are developing technologies that let providers make online services function offline. As I write this, Google's Gears browser add-on is a week old, and the clever Australians at Remember the Milk have already used it to let you manage tasks when you're disconnected. Yanking out my ethernet cable and confirming that RTM still worked was a huge "aha!" moment.
Oh, and consider this: The RTM team consists of two people (and, the service's site says, one stuffed monkey). I don't know how many programmers Microsoft has working on Outlook, but it's a heck of a lot more than that. And with Outlook 2007 only months old, it may be years before there's a big upgrade.
In other words, a couple of enterprising folks have built a better, faster-evolving solution than the world's largest software company has. That's still more evidence that this is an amazing time for software--and for those of us who depend on it to get stuff done at work, at home, and everywhere in between.