Say goodbye to software residing on your computer

This appeared in the December 15, 2005 issue of USA Today. The idea that even­tu­al­ly became “soft­ware as a ser­vice” and then sim­ply “cloud-based soft­ware” was almost unheard of. But for Internet geeks, the future was clear.

usat-softwareOnce upon a time, I used to get a lot of pro­fes­sion­al e‑mail from aol.com address­es. America Online was hot then, and it was for a lot of peo­ple the eas­i­est way to get to the Internet.

Today, how­ev­er, few pro­fes­sion­als I know would want to have an aol.com address on their busi­ness mail. If they don’t have a cor­po­rate address (e.g., at microsoft.com), a lot of them have turned to Google Mail. It, and to a less­er extent Yahoo Mail, seems to have replaced AOL as the stan­dard non-cor­po­rate mailer.

That’s vague­ly inter­est­ing in a mar­ket­ing sort of way. But what real­ly inter­ests me about Google Mail and Yahoo Mail is how peo­ple have tak­en to them as a replace­ment for tra­di­tion­al e‑mail clients like Eudora, Outlook Express, and Thunderbird.

In fact, more and more appli­ca­tions are mov­ing to the Web and off of indi­vid­ual hard dri­ves. The Internet, instead of sim­ply mov­ing data, is become a way to work with it directly.

Back to the future

The first pow­er­ful com­put­ers were used by lots of peo­ple. At first you had to go into the com­put­er room itself, but even­tu­al­ly they had ter­mi­nals — key­boards and mon­i­tors you could use from oth­er loca­tions to use that mainframe.

These main­frames did all the work, and the device on users’ desks sim­ply let them input data and view results, earn­ing them the moniker “dumb terminals.”

When the per­son­al com­put­er began to spread, the main­frame mod­el of com­put­ing waned in favor of one where each users’ machine did the bulk of the pro­cess­ing. The ter­mi­nals weren’t dumb any­more, and thus could share (or take) the work­load from the mainframe.

Eventually most if not all a com­pa­ny’s soft­ware was on the indi­vid­ual users’ com­put­ers, while those main­frames became servers — effec­tive­ly reduced to stor­ing data.

Now the pen­du­lum is swing­ing back, as ubiq­ui­tous (and fast) broad­band con­nec­tions allow us to use soft­ware on com­put­ers around the world. It’s not quite being next door, but close enough.
The result is the rise of Web-based soft­ware. Instead of run­ning a pro­gram on your com­put­er, all you need is a mod­ern Web brows­er and you can find sites that will allow you to do many of the things for which you used to have bought software.

E‑mail may be the most obvi­ous. While Outlook Express, Thunderbird, and their kin account for the major­i­ty of mail sent, Web-based e‑mail from Google Mail , Hotmail , and Yahoo Mail are get­ting big.

The mail soft­ware on these sites is easy to use, and it’s acces­si­ble from any com­put­er any­where you have Web access. You don’t have to wor­ry about back­ing up every day, either (and let’s face it, most peo­ple don’t).

Do you want to keep your cor­po­rate iden­ti­ty but take advan­tage of a Web-based inter­face? No prob­lem. You can get pro­fes­sion­al-grade e‑mail soft­ware ser­vice from com­pa­nies such as Webmail.us that use your own domain name. Webmail will do what­ev­er you need, from han­dling all your com­pa­ny’s mes­sag­ing to sim­ply pro­vid­ing a Web interface.

The advan­tage, espe­cial­ly for the small busi­ness­es that make up the major­i­ty of Webmail’s cus­tomers, is sim­ple. As the com­pa­ny’s site puts it, it’s a “ ‘No Hardware, No Software’ approach to email hosting.”

But e‑mail isn’t alone.

A swiftly growing toolbox

Sites like Flickr allow you to share your pho­tos with­out cre­at­ing your own web­site. Online maps from Google , Mapquest , and oth­ers have for many peo­ple replaced client-side (i.e., buy-it-and-install-it) soft­ware like Delorme’s Street Atlas and Microsoft’s Streets and Trips. Sure, those pro­grams offer many more fea­tures than their online coun­ter­parts, but they cost mon­ey and take up disk space.

Reference tools that you used to have to buy are avail­able online: cal­cu­la­tors, dic­tio­nar­ies, ency­clo­pe­dias, fact books.

Don’t want to pay for a anti-virus soft­ware? Use online virus scans from Trend Micro , Panda Software , or others.

None of this is new. What’s inter­est­ing is the pace — how more and more soft­ware we use is mov­ing to the Web. Some of that soft­ware is appli­ca­tions that you think of as strict­ly resid­ing on your com­put­er — most notably, word pro­cess­ing and spreadsheets.

Surf over to Writely.com . It’s an online word proces­sor. Writely’s cre­ator, a com­pa­ny called Upstartle, mar­kets the doc­u­ment-shar­ing angle, but the ser­vice also presents an inter­est­ing alter­na­tive to Microsoft Word. Sure, it’s not as pow­er­ful, but I’d be will­ing to bet that 90% of Word users don’t touch its more eso­teric fea­tures anyway.

More a num­bers per­son? Check out Num Sum , which does for spread­sheets what Writely does for doc­u­ments. Like Writely, it push­es the shar­ing angle, call­ing the prod­uct “FREE bite-sized, sharable social spreadsheets.”

AJAX and OpenDoc

Both Writely and Num Sum are made pos­si­ble by two things. First is a hot and pow­er­ful new tech­nol­o­gy being used by more and more sites called AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), which allows web­sites to work almost as quick­ly as a local appli­ca­tion. (AJAX is hot and it’s cool, and it will be the sub­ject of a future column.)

Second is the rise of the Open Document Format (OpenDocument) — a stan­dard for word proces­sor files, spread­sheets, and oth­er office doc­u­ments. Unlike the famil­iar .doc and .xls files that come from Microsoft Word and Excel, OpenDocument isn’t pro­pri­etary to any com­pa­ny. Just as HTML is the stan­dard lan­guage of the Web, OpenDocument is becom­ing the stan­dard lan­guage of office files. (Microsoft, see­ing the future, is already begin­ning to sup­port OpenDocument, although some­what reluctantly.)

What that means is that doc­u­ments and spread­sheets you cre­ate on these sites are portable; down­load your cre­ation from the site and any­one with any office appli­ca­tion can read it.

Consider the impli­ca­tions: A com­put­er with enough stor­age to hold the basic oper­at­ing sys­tem and a Web brows­er can now let you do word pro­cess­ing, work with spread­sheets, send and receive e‑mail, view maps, and of course access the Web stan­dard array of ref­er­ence sources.
Put every­thing in flash mem­o­ry or ROM and you have a no-mov­ing-parts machine: light, tough, and with great bat­tery life. Want to make it per­fect? Add a bit of flash-mem­o­ry stor­age and a USB port so you can use a thumb dri­ve, and of course Wi-Fi and either EDGE or EvDO for high-speed access from a cel­lu­lar provider.

High-speed con­nec­tions — wired and wire­less — have already changed how the world access and uses infor­ma­tion. Now those same con­nec­tions, com­bined with robust web­sites and doc­u­ment stan­dards, will start chang­ing the way we use soft­ware as well. Soon, with the sim­plest machine, no mat­ter where you go, your world will trav­el with you.