Indeed, Web pages have evolved into Web apps, to the point where we can do much of our productivity work in a browser window without ever having to invest in traditional desktop software.
But how much work can you really do from a browser? Could you replace all of your desktop apps with Chrome extensions, and be none the worse for wear? After testing a bunch of Chrome apps, I found mixed results: Web apps simply aren’t designed to be complete replicas of their desktop counterparts. Although these apps have gotten a lot better in the past couple of years, you might encounter a few peccadilloes, and desktop software may still be the better choice for your unique needs.
That said, if you haven't been keeping a close watch on the growing power of Chrome extensions and Web apps, you might be pleasantly surprised by our top alternatives to popular desktop software.
Word processing: Google Drive Documents
No matter what you do for a living, you've probably spent some time using a word processor in the past week, probably even in the past 24 hours. Unless you're doing some very complicated work, you could ditch your word processor for Google Drive right now without missing a beat. Sure, the interface is different: You'll find no Ribbon of commands and functions at the top of the screen, and you'll see far fewer buttons. But Google Drive's Documents let you do all of the important things, such as format text, create titles and lists, embed images into your documents, and more.
If you often find yourself emailing Word files back and forth, Google Drive might be even better than its desktop counterparts: You can just invite another person to view your document, and you can both edit the document at the same time, watching each other’s cursors at work. Add Skype to the mix, and it's just like working in the same room, even if the other person is a continent away.
Other writing: Writer and Scratchpad
Compared with Word’s large Ribbon interface, Google Docs feels quite minimalistic. Still, sometimes even a slim toolbar can be distracting. Writer is a Chrome extension (inspired by Writeroom for Mac) designed to provide a simple, clean, distraction-free writing environment; it’s just a black screen with monospaced text and a word count at the bottom. You don’t have to worry about saving your documents: Writer will do that for you, automatically. You don’t have to open an account, and you don’t have to configure anything. Just write.
If you do want to customize the font or open a permanent user account, Writer will let you. But for those times when you just want to get some text down with a minimum of button-clicking and distraction, Writer is an excellent (and free) tool.
So I’ve covered traditional word processing with Google Docs, and long-form distraction-free writing with Writer. But there’s one more type of writing we all do. Call it scribbling—making little notes throughout the day, jotting down things we don’t want to forget or recording details from a phone call. For times like these, Google’s Scratchpad extension is ideal.
When you click the Scratchpad icon, it opens a tiny window, not unlike a sticky note. You can then start a new note and jot down whatever is on your mind—your note is saved automatically, and you can easily tell Scratchpad to synchronize with Google Docs so that you have access to your notes from anywhere. Scratchpad also makes creating multiple notes and searching their titles simple. I do wish that it supported the “/” keyboard shortcut for quickly selecting the text field, though.
Email: Gmail Offline and Outlook Notifier
If you're used to working with a desktop mail client like Outlook, switching to a webmail client such as Gmail or Outlook.com may prove to be a bit jarring. Both are capable Web apps, but you still may experience slight delays from time to time when using them. One intriguing alternative is to use Gmail Offline; this Chrome extension puts a completely different face on Gmail, making it more akin to the tablet version of the service than to the Web-based one.
As the name implies, you can use Gmail Offline even with intermittent Web connectivity: It can connect to the service, synchronize messages, and disconnect so you can keep working on the plane or wherever you don't have Net access. But even with a stable, constant connection, Gmail Offline can serve you as a powerful alternative to a desktop email client. For one thing, it has Gmail's powerful filters, which can help you tame your inbox by automatically organizing incoming email; you configure the filters using the regular Gmail interface. You can also send mail from multiple “From” addresses, and it supports many of Gmail’s regular keyboard shortcuts.
If you prefer to keep your email with Microsoft instead of Google, you could use the Outlook.com Notifier extension to quickly see how many email messages are waiting in your Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail) inbox. This simple extension appears as an icon with a counter overlay showing the number of unread messages, and it's smart enough to use Chrome's Desktop Notifications feature to display a pop-up whenever you receive a new message (you can disable this function if you don't appreciate the constant distractions).