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).
Spreadsheets: Google Spreadsheets and Zoho Sheets
Replacing Excel, the de facto standard for spreadsheets, is not as easy as replacing your word processor or email client. Yes, Google Drive also offers spreadsheets, but there the difference in power and features is much more pronounced. For a quick example, just open a new Excel spreadsheet on your computer and hold the Page Down button. You could be scrolling down for minutes: In Excel 2013, I was able to get to over 100,000 rows. With Google’s Spreadsheets, you’ll run out after less than a second, since it tops out at 100 rows by default. If you want more rows, you have to add them manually by clicking a button at the bottom of the spreadsheet—and you get just 20 rows at a time, though you can change that pretty easily. Another Web-based spreadsheet, Zoho Sheets, handles the limited-row issue more elegantly, transparently adding rows as you scroll down.
Of course, that’s just one simple difference, but it’s a good indication of the raw, effortless power that Excel offers, versus the still-limited nature of online apps. That said, if you often use spreadsheet macros, you won’t have to do without: Both Google Spreadsheets and Zoho Sheets support macro creation. Zoho Sheets supports macro recording and works with the same VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) language built into Excel, but its macro editor doesn’t contain any debugging features (though Google’s spreadsheet editor does). Another key difference is that Google offers a Script Gallery where you can browse and borrow other users’ macros, which can be a useful timesaver. Both Google and Zoho provide conditional formatting, pivot tables, and other modern spreadsheet niceties. Google Drive also offers those aforementioned collaboration features, to boot.
The bottom line on spreadsheets is that if you don’t work with big data, but you do work with other people, Google Spreadsheets or Zoho Sheets can probably accomplish what you need. But if you’re doing serious number crunching on a routine basis, Excel is still your best bet.
Presentations: SlideRocket, Google Drive, and Prezi
SlideRocket is a Flash-based presentation tool with a bunch of useful features that heavy PowerPoint users may appreciate, such as slide transitions, element animations, image effects, and more. SlideRocket makes it easy to pull YouTube videos and Flickr images into your presentation, and the paid version ($24 per user per month) even offers online presentation analytics. With the analytics, you can see how the online audience reacts to individual slides in your presentation, how long they spent on each slide, and more. And if you’re on the go, you can use SlideRocket Player for iPad, SlideRocket for iPhone, or just a mobile version of the service itself via your Android phone’s Web browser.
One caveat is that SlideRocket makes it a bit too easy to pull material into your presentation: I used its Flickr search tool to find an image of a kitten, but was unable to attribute the image to its rightful creator because SlideRocket wouldn’t provide any metadata about it or let me go to its source page. I had to open Flickr and manually search for the image just so that I could properly credit its creator, a Flickr user by the screen name of witigonen.
Presentations are almost synonymous with slides, but they really don’t have to be: If you’re trying something new by leaving PowerPoint behind, why not leave the very concept of slides behind? Prezi lets you do just that by treating your presentation as a large canvas, rather than as a collection of separate slides. As the presentation plays, it pans across the canvas, zooming in and out at your command. Done well, a Prezi presentation can feel more cohesive than a PowerPoint one; when you’re finished watching it, you feel as though you got a true bird’s-eye view of the subject in question.
If you want to go the Google route, Google Drive includes a Presentation tool. It isn’t Flash-based, and it includes an interesting Research sidebar that lets you quickly pull in images and other data from the Web. If you start a new slide and suddenly think, “A quote about happiness would go great here,” Google’s Presentation tool makes finding, attributing, and inserting such a quote into your presentation trivially easy.
One obvious advantage of using these tools over PowerPoint is that your audience won’t have to download an email attachment to view your presentation—they can just click a link and begin, or you could even embed the presentation within an existing page as part of your website.
Image editing: Pixlr, PicMonkey, and BeFunky
The undisputed king of desktop image editing is, of course, Photoshop. But these days, even Photoshop has an online version, called Photoshop Express. It is a far cry from the desktop version in terms of power, but it can help you get the basics done. That said, Photoshop Express doesn’t offer a handy Chrome extension—not even one that acts as a quick link to the app. That shouldn’t stop you from trying it out (it’s free), but let’s look at two options that do come with Chrome extensions: Pixlr and PicMonkey.
Pixlr’s Chrome extension is little more than a shortcut to the Web service (like the Google Drive extension), but this free Flash-based editor from Autodesk is both powerful and friendly. You can quickly load images from your computer, create new layers, adjust levels, apply effects, and use traditional tools such as dodge, burn, blur, and more. Pixlr even has a wand selection tool, as well as a history panel with a log of operations you can undo, just as in Photoshop. For all of its sophistication, however, you must remember that Pixlr is still Flash-based—in other words, save often, because it may occasionally freeze or crash. While using Pixlr with a stable version of Chrome and its built-in Flash plug-in, I encountered one crash that erased all of my work.
For better or for worse, Pixlr feels like a traditional image editor. If you’re looking for something more along the lines of what you can do with Instagram on your phone, you should check out PicMonkey. This image editor couldn’t be simpler to use: Just load your image, and start selecting edits from the sidebar. The sidebar is divided into groups, beginning with basic functions such as cropping and exposure, and then moving on to creative color effects similar to those in Picasa (Focal B&W, Lomo). It includes a text tool with lots of fonts (ideal for creating meme-style images), as well as several framing options and different textures you can apply to your photo.
Another fun and simple photo editor is BeFunky. It’s not all that different from PicMonkey: You get a sidebar with tools subdivided into “Effects,” which can be subtle, and “Artsy,” which are more heavy-handed, transforming your photo into a watercolor image or something out of a comic. BeFunky’s layout feels a bit haphazard at times, and it lacks PicMonkey’s polished fit and finish, but it is certainly usable. What’s nice about combining both tools is that if you can’t find the exact tool you need on PicMonkey, you might find it on BeFunky. If you just want to have some fun with a picture without learning to use Photoshop (or something like Photoshop), PicMonkey and BeFunky are both great options.
The Take-Home Message
If I had to sum up this article in two words, I’d say: “It’s possible.” These days, you really could ditch the lion’s share of your desktop software and get your work done with free tools right in your browser. One of the nice things about this process is that, unlike switching to a new operating system, it’s a gradual one—you don’t have to say good-bye to Word, Excel, Outlook, and Photoshop, all in one day. You can part ways slowly, one document or spreadsheet at a time, until one day you find yourself using nothing but free cloud-based tools.
Because most of us don’t work in a vacuum, the biggest question in making such a gradual transition turns out to be other people: Is online collaboration important to you and your coworkers? Would your colleagues be happy to accept links to Google Docs rather than email attachments? Would your organization be okay with you switching to a different email platform? If you can answer “yes” to those questions, your path to using browser-based apps will be a smooth one.
Endlessly tweaking his workflow for comfort and efficiency, Erez is a freelance writer on a mission to discover the simplest, coolest, and most effective software and websites to make tomorrow happen today.