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August 2, 2008

Replacing Desktop Software with Web Applications

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Web applications aren't, in most cases, real replacements for desktop software. Google Docs or Zoho will never be as fast, as powerful or as easy to use as Microsoft Office or OpenOffice, but their other strengths could convince some people to use them.

On the other hand, Gmail and Google Reader could easily replace many desktop email clients and feed readers, as most of the time when you read your mail or news you're online.

Browsers' limitations, security risks, latency, the lack of offline access are serious problems that won't be solved too soon and will continue to prevent many web applications to become real alternatives for their desktop relatives.

Did you replace a desktop application with a web app that has a similar functionality? What desktop applications do you think will become obsolete in 5 years?

(Originally published in August 2007)


  1. > Google Docs or Zoho will never
    > be as fast, as powerful or as
    > easy to use as Microsoft Office
    > or OpenOffice, but their
    > other strengths could convince
    > some people to use them.

    Hmm, not sure about that. Google Docs Writely is easier to use than Word already, but that's because it has much less features -- so that's hard to compare.

    As for the speed, I just opened up an outline of a book in Word, which took around 3 seconds. Opening a similar outline in Google Docs Writely took around 6 seconds. That's twice as long but I don't see why that speed might not be optimized in the future.

    As far as power goes: right now, Google Docs is much less powerful than Word for most needs (the non-collaboration/ sharing/ publication needs). But never say never.

    As far as what will go obsolete, I think it really depends on the user base. There will be companies using Microsoft products for many years to come. Once Google Docs is equal -- which might take years, if ever -- it's still a management decision whether or not to use it. But for casual home users the picture is very different; this target group has much less reason to stick to the more costly MS Office solution, and they might switch to Google Office much quicker.

    Already, Google's Excel (Google Spreadsheets) has all I need from Excel, simply because I don't need much. Excel power users on the other hand might see an immense lack of features when switching...

  2. Google docs is very easy to use and more reliable that Word in that it has off site storage - not to mention worldwide accessibility. Admittedly, Word is quicker ... for now. I use Google Docs for documents that I want to be accessible everywhere. I have always used Google Reader as my feed reader because with iGoogle, it all just integrates nicely without the need to install extra software (and again, it's available everywhere - even on my mobile phone). I think it's all a matter of trade-offs and niches. For some things, online apps will be better. For others, local apps will be better. Perhaps one day the two will merge and have an online/offline option. Meh. :)

  3. I've experimented with a few online applications, including Google Docs and an online image editing site. I found Google Docs useful for collaboration and sharing of short, informational documents and spreadsheets, such as the accounting spreadsheet of our carpool cooperative. The online image editing site wasn't so useful, mainly because of internet latency/bandwidth and JavaScript being slow.

    I get a lot more mileage out of online apps that are meant for dealing with online things -- such as blog readers (I use Google Reader daily) and webmail. They give me a lot of portability for essential connectivity tasks.

    For my coding work, I'm better off with traditional solutions, such as an ssh text-based connection and distributed version-control systems like CVS, SVN, and Git. As long as my local setup has the right tools, I can get a lot of work done with only occasional (once a day or even less) connectivity. I also use these version control systems for collaborative editing of documents (like tech reports and journal papers).

    It would be nice if Google Docs had an "offline" feature, like Google Reader now does!

  4. I agree. I use Google Docs & Spreadsheets only occasionally, and it would never replace OpenOffice for the work I need to do.

    But Gmail has long since displaced Thunderbird (OE and Outlook are distant memories), and Google Reader is just more usable than any desktop feed reader.

    I think this is a function as much of how common broadband connections are these days, as anything else. On an old-fashioned pay-as-you-go dial-up connection you'd still need the old-fashioned desktop applications.

  5. Web-based apps have already completely replaced for me:

    * email
    * calendar
    * chat
    * task list
    * mapping & directions
    * feed reading
    * encyclopedia / dictionary
    * photo storage
    * financial information (CapitalIQ)
    * simple word processing
    * simple spreadsheets
    * casual games

    In the next 5 years I suspect web-based applications will also handle:

    * complex word processing
    * complex spreadsheets
    * complex photo manipulation
    * complex presentations
    * serious games

    I doubt in 5 years web-based apps will handle this last set of apps at the *professional* level, but even very advanced users I think will find them satisfactory.

  6. Not as powerful: agree, but most users don't need all that power.

    Speed: disagree. You should consider startup time for Word, Excel ..etc, the time needed for antivirus scan..etc.

    Once I have Firefox open - which is the first thing to do booting up - then pulling up Zoho Writer or Sheet is a lot faster than waiting for the MS apps to load.

    Or look at search: Outlook chokes on it - desktop search programs like Copernic improve find time, bu t can't be compared to Gmail.

    My setup since getting off the desktop: Gmail + Zoho Suite.

  7. Oh, and let's not forget about the benefit of easy collaboration on the web, and avoiding nuclear war ;-)

  8. I don't have MS office on my computer. My hard drive died and the copy that was on the old drive was borrowed. I miss very few things with office, least of which is my ability to lose documents to broken hard drives and replaced computers. I'm glad I don't have to look at a dog or paper clip when I look for old docs as well. There's lots of other good stuff as well, benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but I like having my work easy to find always and forever.

  9. Stopped completely using Word/Excel for personal use about 6 months ago. I'm using Google Docs/Spreadsheets only and I'm OK with that for my personal needs.

  10. Karlheinz MosblechAugust 16, 2007 at 5:03 PM

    Zoho Creator is terrific. I use both Creator and Access, but one doesn't replace the other -- they are two solutions for different problems/tasks.

    But I think the dichotomy wrong anyway. The way ahead (in the near future, at least) is the connection/interoperability between desktop and browser apps: access to documents and repositories via some API, never mind the application, open up the walled gardens. I use Word 2007 for posting to my Wordpress acount, I just started using the Zoho plug-in for Word and Excel. Remember that MS invented XMLHttp for Outlook Web Access.

    And there is only so much you can do with HTML and JavaScript. They were not conceived for simulating desktop applications. I think that we will see the differentiation between browser and desktop apps go in the not-too-distant future, that there will be only apps with online capability, with a variety of GUI, hosts, runtimes, whatever. This time for real.

  11. Kalrheinz, I can't believe I'm recommending a MS product, but this one is good: Windows Live Writer - which, despite the name is the perfect offline editor for Wordpress.

  12. Desktop applications are superb for working by oneself and then sharing by printing out on paper and sending by regular mail.

    If that is not your modus operandi, after all it is not 1992 anymore, then Google Docs and Spreadsheets and all other such services leave desktop suites in the dust.

    I now use desktop applications for specialized functions such as "nice layout", figure creation, statistical analysis etc.

  13. >most of the time when you read your mail or news you're online.

    I don't agree with at all.

    Overall, if there will be exist good online-offline sync up paradigms,then offline apps will certainly be on the higher ends. Al-tough, online apps will not come to its end,as there exist a beautiful use case of it. Think of case, when you are working on some PC than your own, and that PC doesn't have that app on which you want own.

    Plus, as Adobe is working of AIR, We might see that every online product with its offline copy.


  14. I still use only what Word 2.0 provided. MS just forced us to migrate to higher versions with features we rarely needed.

    I agree that advanced users will use advanced features that web programs can hardly adequately deliver.

    I used Gmail only for personal info. Of course I still use MS Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird as they are handy for handling multiple accounts. Of course, only advanced users like me will need these Email desktop clients.

    I can hardly raise more examples that any Web application can totally replace my frequent desktop applications.

    I think, new computer users and younger users may find most of there computing applications totally running on Web. And they don't need MS Office and desktop Email clients that we older computer users get used to.

    Though without real statistics, I would presume that at the present or in the future, more than 80% of computer users will use only Web programs for most of their personal computer activities.

    "Network is computer". This has been becoming reality even for consumer markets.

  15. Karlheinz MosblechAugust 17, 2007 at 12:33 AM


    Live Writer will be great the moment it starts using an open format for saving its offline data. It's a walled garden for the time being.

  16. Vasile TomoiagăAugust 17, 2007 at 2:55 AM

    Already don't need desktop apps for Mail, Feed Aggregator, Calendar. Thanks to Google.

  17. Please also note that Google Gears provides Google Reader with offline functionality.

  18. I no longer have to have MSN, AOL, Google Talk, or Yahoo messenger applications installed on my pc. I have all mine tied into one easily accessible web application. Check out

  19. the way anonymous said, tha basic workstation will become a browser-based terminal...

  20. Online vs. offline apps is not an either/or situation -- we can have both. I have an IMAP mailbox that I can access via Mail at home and the web interface elsewhere. The data is perfectly synched. I use Spanning Sync to keep iCal perfectly synchronized with Google Calendar.

    These online apps are pretty nice, but honestly, they're still nowhere near as polished as the desktop equivalents. And they don't need to be. Why force a web browser to be your word processor, calendar, image editor, etc., when you can have desktop apps each built to do one thing really well -- online or not -- and have it share data with a web-accessible server as well.

    Until internet access is truly ubiquitous, there's going to be a need to have things available offline. And honestly, I want my documents in my computer -- not beholden to someone else's server.

  21. Google Calendar people are going very slow with improvements. Weeks ago, I suggested them to incorporate features already existing in GMail but it looks like they are 'too busy'. The reason I started off this way is that I wish to talk about Scrybe, an alt to Google Calendar. It is in beta through invit mode right now, but just checkout the movie on their page

    Here is one web-based solution for a hitherto desktop domain which manages to survive offline usage for a limited amount of time at least.

  22. I think this is accelerating and will continue to do so....

    I have not got any of Microsoft Office on my latest Intel Macs, although I am not using web apps as replacements (using Neoffice and Keynote - the latest version is awesome).

    Web apps that now dominate my Mac usage are

    - Google Reader
    - Gmail
    - Gcal
    - Basecamp
    - Backpak
    - Highrise

  23. - gmail (was Tbird)
    - google calendar
    - google talk (or meebo to talk to AOL and MSN people, but gtalk is best.)

    BUT I completely disagree that google docs can even compare to Word. I find it difficult to place things exactly where I want them on a page. Perhaps I'm just used to Word, but IMO Writely just plain sucks. When it's better, I (like everyone else) will use it.

  24. Office 2007 crippled my PC. It wasn't just office's startup times, it was the overall effect on the speed of the PC. I don't know what Office did to my computer, but it made it almost unusably slow. In a fit of pique, I destroyed Windows, installed Ubuntu Linux, moved all my stuff online and I haven't looked back. I use google services for almost everything. The only desktop apps I still use are aMSN Messenger, GEdit text editor (purely for writing Python programs), Bash and Python. Everything else is done online. I find Google D&S to be faster, safer and simpler to use than the bloated office equivalents.

    Heh, check Slippy with his "original" opinions.

  25. One thing that is always overlooked in these debates is the fact that once you go On line, the need for a laptop lessens. I have been on a few business trips in the past few months and I use Internet cafes or hotel machines for calendar, spreadsheet, things to do and WP functions. I am no longer lugging a computer and no longer have to worry about wireless access.

    By the way, within 3 years, I expect that there will not be much difference in the speed of online to resident apps.

  26. I recently started using as a password storage option. For the security conscious it might seem a little crazy, but the way it works means the zipped file on the server can't be read unless you have a password.

    The user creates an account protected with a username ans password and a security greeting. Once logged in, everything is done through ajax. The user enters passwords/usernames for various sites and client side script creates a zipped file in memory.

    Once the user is finished the user types a second password which is used to protect the zipped file (again using client side script). This password protected zip file is then uploaded to the server.

    The reverse happens when the user logs in again. The password protected zipped file is downloaded and client side script is used to ask the user for the password and open the zip file.

    It also allows the user to download the zipped files to their hard drive to create their own backup.

  27. > Google Docs or Zoho will never
    > be as fast, as powerful or as
    > easy to use as Microsoft Office
    > or OpenOffice, ...

    Dude, never say never (and never say "dude").

  28. I'm not sure web apps are meant to replace desktop apps just yet, but I agree that it would be nice if they either had better features or better integration with the desktop apps that have the features. If not word, then perhaps some of the GNU products.

    Also, there are some other options besides doc sharing that seem particularly well suited to a web based text application. It's sad that we haven't seen anything happen with the actual editor since it was released.

    That said, the people at Google have been busy. I'll forgive them slacking a bit on Docs for what I've seen on Maps- but beware google, I'm slowly forgetting about docs and other projects as they lay dormant. If Google wants to keep their users on less popular projects, they need to add new things.

  29. I personately only use Gmail, Google Maps and sometime Meebo out of all the online apps out there.

    Gmail: Email was supposed to be on the internet, I really do not see the point or need to download it onto my computer. Also, Gmail is just so perfect and easy to use without too many features.
    Google Maps: I would use Google Earth (seeing as how Google Maps has gotten slow lately), if only it had street view. Street view is the only reason I use Google Maps as opposed to Google Earth.
    Meebo: Even with all the alternatives, I still prefer WLM (the new MSN) to any web or desktop IM apps out there that work with MSN. Meebo I only use when I'm on any other computer that doesn't have any version of MSN installed.

    Everything else can be done on my desktop faster, better and the way it was supposed to be. Office 2007 is better than Zoho and Google Docs, WLM is better than Meebo, etc.

    I think that in the future there will be no winner, I think that offline and online apps will learn to integrate together well and sync to keep all your documents and information wherever you might need it.

  30. I have some thoughts about that - if you're interested you can check them on my blog:

  31. I think the problem lies in opening application X inside application Y. For example, it would be very difficult to load application such as Photoshop of Fireworks within a browser. Of course, it could be done, but it's very difficult. Also, applications' base is assembly, and most are created in C and C++, so the applications are very powerful. Within a browser, we don't get choices like that... We basically have server-side lang. and client-side lang. That's it. And currently, languages such as CSS aren't very powerful... For example, sometime ago I wanted to set opacity of a parent object to .5, but that meant all children objects also inherited opacity of .5. Small things like this add up and make a big difference, in my opinion.

    Web is good for connecting, thus the name, but if one wants to just get something done fast without worrying about "sharing" or "connecting," desktop software is the way to go. (Well, at least for right now. We don't know what's going to happen after 5 years).

    - hobnobLover

  32. online applications can be slow and if you do get offline you can't do anything. applications like prism from mozilla will become popular as it solves a great deal of the problems of web apps.

    i also think that web based gaming will become more advanced, as internet becomes faster and faster, loading bigger games becomes less of a problem. it's only a matter of time before developers can use directX in internet explorer.

    also, Adobe will expand it's web apps. photoshop illustrator etc. this timebased usage is lucrative for adobe and will become more and more advanced over time, perhaps even all desktop features.

  33. My 2-cents...

    I run a financial services agency with over 100 Reps in four states, and we use online services exclusively (only free ones).

    Google Docs - our training and compliance manuals are shared with everyone. I make a change, everyone's changes.

    Google Spreadsheets - we track our production numbers, revenues etc, and "share" it with people who need to know. When I update it, everyone's copy updates. This is a tremendous time-saver. No more, emailing attachments.

    Google Presentations - I have almost 100 training presentations on GD. It's a "poor man's" webinar, and allows other branches to present my presentations anytime they want.

    Picasa Web - share photos of our members. (free version) - for files and documents that aren't yet in Google Docs. Now, that GD allows storage of pdf's, we're moving them there slowly.

    dabbledb (free version) - I created a simple database that tracks our training classes.

    Google Calendar - shared with everyone. I make a change, add a new item, everyone's changes.

    GTalk - most of my reps are on gmail, so this is a very easy way for them to contact me.

    blogger - for posting information and training.

    Google Groups - for our email distribution list.

    SendOutCards - this is the only "pay-service" we use. It allows you to create custom greeting cards online, and the company prints them, stuffs them, and mails them (real cards). It is fantastic for clients and "thank you notes" and "birthday".

    Yugma - free webinar services when we need to "share" a desktop. - free video feed for training with a web cam.

    skype - also for webinars.

    Other benefits include not storing data on laptops, not storing programs on laptops, which makes re-installing much faster, easier and cheaper. Mostly, we are operating system "agnostic". We have people on all versions of Windows, Mac and Linux (Ubuntu).

    Basically, the browser becomes your "workspace". Mostly we use Firefox.

    I find that most of my guys are ubiquitous internet, with wi-fi (ATT is free for customers at all Starbucks, Borders and McDs), and many have 3G through ATT or Verizon.

    As another poster said, often when going on a trip I don't even bother taking my lappy, I just login in at any computer at the destination and I'm ready to work.

    Another benefit of using *mostly* Google Services, is that they are all tied to one login. So, if I login into, say, Gmail, then I am automatically logged into blogger, calendar, picasa, notebook, docs etc. Also, I change my password weekly, and changes ALL the passwords.

    I must say I truly enjoy simplicity and freedom that online apps provide!

  34. MPT - I would love to see you log into a terminal at one of your destinations and input your username and password, only to be unaware of something so simple as a USB keylogger installed on the rear of the machine. I think we are starting to take our security a little too much for granted. I have had six hits in the past week at a local Borders of someone attempting to remote access my laptop while I was checking my Amazon account. Someone in the store had time to sit around and search the network, I can only wonder what they have had time to do with the terminals in the store..........Happy Netting!

  35. I use Google Docs for Writing and Spreadsheet often, but for larger documents like a book I still use OpenOffice.
    When I am not at home, I use NewsGator which I prefer over Google Reader because it has a better mobile interface and syncs with NetNewsWire.
    I use Google Maps for routing.

  36. I am almost done to replace the word, if google gives marging, and formatted pages.

    Excel I am not using much

    I like to work on the web, I can also access the data from my mobile

  37. i have made the move to online apps for most of my productivity software outside the heavyweights such as photoshop and dreamweaver. I use the full suite of google apps for day-to-day business and seldom use word which has always infuriated me anyhow, especially the paper clip 'helper'

  38. I have made a move online with most of my Office software for home use - also if I should ever need a document at work or vice versa. Google Docs fills my needs, as most of my simple tasks can be done on there. Then of course I have Open Office with a plugin for Google Docs so I can import and export files.

    Now a fully integrated stylesheet designer would be a good option for Google Docs - it is the only downside.

    One piece of software that will defenitely be obsolete in five years is Mail and Calendar applications. They are so closely related and considering that you need access to them from so many devices and places, it makes more sense to have them online. I have not used Outlook or any other similar software except when forced by office politics.

  39. I have replaced Calc/Excel with Google Spreadsheets and so far have been more than impressed. There is no issue at all with slow down, and if you understand a little about spreadsheets, the migration is no problem at all either.

    I have used Gmail's web interface since I started using Gmail about 3 years ago and I cannot go to a desktop email client for more than a week before I miss the old familiar look of the website. And with plugins like Remembert the Milk for Gmail, the Gmail Notifier and Google Calendar Notifier there is no reason to use another program hosted on the local system.

    Google Docs, however, is a pain to use. So much so that I stay as far away from that app as I can. I have switched from Writer/Word to AbiWord Portable and haven't looked back.

    I do still have OpenOffice on my laptop and my office uses Microsoft Office exclusively, but I think the era of consumer-level netbooks is here to stay. And with apps like Google's office suite, Deezer (music) and others there is no reason to offer the big, bulky desktops of laptops anymore.

  40. Google Docs is a priceless tool for teaching. I use it to teach history at a university and its ability to public pages and spreadsheets is exactly what the expensive professional university services like Blackboard simply cannot do easily or in a user-friendly way.

    Oh and world-wide access and reliable backup make the service that much better.

  41. @Zoli Erdos: I cannot believe that you are mentioning loading speed and footprint of Microsoft Office product line. My average spec laptop running vista loads Excel 2007 in a sec with 7 Megs of memory footprint, and Word 2007 with 10Megs when loaded up. Especially when your computer's old, using web apps certainly will slow down your computer. Currently, no webapps can match this speed & weight.

  42. I definitely stopped using desktop email clients, I am only using web based clients. I find them better. TBH I am looking forward to web desktops....