From Desktop to Webtop:
Free Online Software

September 2006

Want to know how old I am? Here’s a clue: I can remember when the cost of a computer was about 10 times the cost of software. Today computers cost almost nothing — you can get a Dell with monitor for as little as $300. You pay more than that — around $400 — for the standard edition of Microsoft Office. Throw in virus protection and some other common applications, and you’re spending a lot more on software than on hardware.

But there’s good news on the software front. One of the interesting new trends is the advent of free online software: web sites with excellent software applications that you use via your web browser and that have the same look and feel and features of the desktop environment. This development is sometimes referred to as the “webtop” as opposed to the desktop.

The first advantage is, of course, that they’re free. In addition, because these are web-based applications, you can work on your documents from any computer with Internet access, making your desktop portable, as well as being cross-platform. Also, you don’t have to concern yourself with upgrading your software and backing up your files. And when you get a new computer, you aren’t faced with the hassle of migrating your applications and documents to your new system.

The files created by these applications can be saved in standard file formats and can be downloaded to your computer.

Another major advantage is that these online applications make it easy for a number of users to collaborate on a document — and to track the changes of the various users so you know who made what changes and when. Multiple people can even edit a document at the same time in some of these applications, and it simply alerts you if someone is currently editing the same text as you.

On the other hand, you typically need broadband access to effectively use these applications. And they may not be as powerful as high-end applications. (But heck, most of us don’t need the features filling the very expensive bloatware that we buy.)

The advent of the webtop took a leap forward when Google bought Writely in April, signaling its intent to go head to head with Microsoft in the battle for the desktop. I haven’t used Writely, but it’s gotten good reviews. It has many of the familiar functions of word processing in regard to formatting and editing documents, including inserting tables and images.

Google also launched Google Spreadsheets this summer. It’s a pretty basic application — but then, that’s all that’s needed by many people, especially if you will benefit from working in a collaborative environment.

Zoho and ThinkFree both offer an online office suite that includes word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software. I’ve seen a number of recommendations of Zoho in online reports. ThinkFree has a great tour (see menu at top) that gives you a quick glimpse of the power of these applications.

These services usually have some limitations. ThinkFree, for example, limits you to 1 GB of free storage and a file size of 10 MB.

In regard to web page creation, there have long been many online options. One of the latest is (again!) Google with its Google Page Creator online software. You’ll need a Google account, and your web site will be online at http://yourgoogleaccount.google.com.

Note that Apple’s Safari web browser won’t work with some of these applications, such as Writely and Google Page Creator, and you’ll need to use Firefox instead.

For picture editing, of the few that I tried I thought that MyImager had the most features, including adjusting the hue, saturation, lightness, brightness, and contrast. (Note, though, that you can’t store photos on this site. They delete all files at midnight.)

For database software, a friend of mine who’s sampled a number of the freebies recommends BasePortal. I’ve already found a use for this, since I need to collaborate with someone in maintaining a contacts database.

So why is it free? Often there are paid upgrades to the service, and sometimes simply advertising on the site.

Computers make growing older fun — each year prices drop and more and more software is becoming freely available.

© 2006 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen