June 20, 2008

Up in the cloud

Recently, I've been thinking about the changing nature of computing. This was occasioned by an email that showed up in my inbox informing me that there was a new version of NeoOfficeavailable (NeoOffice is a Mac port of the OpenOffice.orgproject). I've been a big fan of OpenOffice and its derivatives over the years; when I was in college at UCSB, I used it in preference to Microsoft Word, which had a nasty habit of crashing on my G3 iBook, and used it in Linux when I wrote my proseminar paper, which was effectively my senior thesis. Overall, I found it more stable, more customizable, and just plain more to my taste than the Microsoft product. I've kept current versions of it on all our computers, given it away to friends, and its free and open-source nature means I can do so legally without taking out a loan to pay for it. It opens corrupted Word files more reliably than Word does, reads old Word formats that the current version of Word doesn't want to know about, and its native format is the Open Document Format, which has been recognized as an ISO standard.

It's not perfect; until recent versions of NeoOffice, its user interface made it look like a Windows 98 app, early versions took forever to start up, and it's a bloody huge download. But overall I've been so happy with it that I haven't really considered other options--until now.

What's changed my mind is, as you might guess, Google Docs. I'd tried early versions of it, which had limited functionality, and had gone back to NeoOffice. Then I decided to move my email hosting. I signed up for Google Apps For Your Domain, which also gives you a variety of other services including Google Docs. I tried it again, and...I liked it. A lot. I liked it so much, in fact, that it's now my default word processor.

It does have its limitations. If you need mail merge and footnotes and adjustable letter spacing, you won't be happy. But if you want to write a letter, or a to-do list, or any other basic word processing function, it's in there--and your document is stored on Google's servers, securely, available to you anywhere you have an internet connection. This might be problematic if you don't have reliable Web access, but even there Google's engineers have figured out a solution--Google Gears, which gives you offline access. It can handle PDF files, and will import and export files in several formats. And it isn't just a word processor--Google Docs also does spreadsheets and presentations.

So now you have a free office suite, running in your browser, with documents accessible anywhere. Suddenly, a desktop application--particularly an expensive one--doesn't make as much sense as it did before. To be sure, there are lots of good ones out there--Word, WordPerfect, AbiWord, Mellel, OpenOffice, Pages, etc.--but increasingly, the question you have to ask is, _"why bother?"_

Indeed, that is becoming a question in many areas of computing. As it stands, you can do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, file backup, and a host of other things using web apps and web services. I'm a good example of what can be done--my email is hosted by Google, my photos are on Flickr, backed up to Amazon S3via JungleDisk, my check register is a Google spreadsheet, and my documents are mostly Google Docs (downloaded to my computer as ODF files and backed up to Amazon S3, just in case).

The upshot of all this is that you need less computer with which to do your everyday tasks. Why bother with a huge optical drive if almost everything you do is web-based? Thus, something like the Asus eeePC(on the low end) or the MacBook Air(on the high end) starts to look like a reasonable solution. Operating systems aren't even all that important anymore, since the web is cross-platform, so you have real choice there as well.

And the best part is, you never have to download and update an application ever again.