Scott Spanbauer gave up desktop software applications for one week, working solely on the web. He loved it so much he still hasn't gone back to the desktop

Experiments in which techies give up the programs on their PCs for a week and rely instead only on web-hosted applications are nothing new.

Afterwards, they always go back to the 'real' programs that reside on their hard drives before recounting the amusing experiences with the online substitutes.

But this little adventure had an unexpected ending: three weeks later, I was still living on the web – with no plans to return permanently to Microsoft Office or most of the other productivity applications I used to find indispensable. Click here for reviews of the best online applications.

Sure, online applications can't do certain things – such as rip and burn CDs or capture screenshots. But the convenience of storing and editing my documents and email online compensates well for the drawbacks and missing features of Google Docs, Zoho Office, Gmail and the like. Google and Zoho provided all the tools I needed, while sites such as ThinkFree offer similar features.

The web may not replace your traditional desktop apps if your needs go beyond basic email, word processing and spreadsheet tasks, or if your web connection is slow. But you'd be surprised at how much you can do in a browser.

Moreover, online office suites let you do something that locally installed apps can't: collaborate with others on documents in real time, regardless of each person's physical location. Over the following pages I'll explain how I became a true believer – and what you can expect if you take the plunge.

NEXT PAGE: The end of the addiction > >

Scott Spanbauer gave up desktop software applications for one week, working solely on the web. He loved it so much he still hasn't gone back to the desktop

The end of the addiction

While I can take or leave the rest of Microsoft's Office suite, the mere prospect of relinquishing my Outlook email client and personal information manager made me nervous.

Nevertheless, I configured Gmail to start picking up the POP3 mail that I previously used Outlook to download. Since I had set up Outlook to leave messages on the server for two weeks, Gmail gathered up almost all my current email business. It was easy to configure Gmail to use my POP3 account's reply-to address instead of my Gmail address. No one noticed Outlook was out and Gmail was in.

I did have to adjust to using Gmail's labels – topic tags you create and assign to messages that remain in the user's inbox – instead of Outlook's folders to organise my mail, but now that I've got the hang of them, I prefer them.

New incoming messages in the same thread automatically receive the same label and the entire thread always comes back into my inbox along with the new message. As a result, I archive mail intrepidly, knowing it will reappear when needed. I still have to deal with my inbox daily, but now it's almost always practically empty.

Finally, I exported my Outlook contacts and calendar to .csv files, imported them into Gmail and Google Calendar, respectively – and just like that I was Outlook-free.

Gmail doesn't offer an easy way to import your old email from desktop clients, but the couple of times I needed to see an old message, I simply fired up Outlook, took a look, then shut it down again. People who use IMAP email wouldn't even have this problem, as all IMAP mail is stored on the server and Gmail can easily gather it there.

At the outset, I worried about losing Outlook's ability to integrate email and calendar tasks. You can drag an Outlook message and drop it on your calendar to create an appointment; Outlook places the body of the email in the appointment description and uses the message subject as the appointment subject.

Google is even better: choose Create Event while viewing a Gmail message, and the program will search the message for dates and times and fill in the various Calendar fields for you. This method works only if the message is written in English, however.

NEXT PAGE: Words and pictures > >

Scott Spanbauer gave up desktop software applications for one week, working solely on the web. He loved it so much he still hasn't gone back to the desktop

Words and numbers

It's too soon to tell whether I will encounter a show-stopping shortcoming in Google Docs.

I like the collaboration features: if someone I've invited to edit my document accepts and begins working on it, a little box appears at the bottom of the screen, informing me that the person is editing the document. The changes take effect when the editor clicks Save. I can see the changes when I click Save or refresh the browser.

But I did run into problems. First, my documents printed with tiny headers and footers. I eventually discovered that these were inserted by the browser and worked out how to get rid of them.

Also, neither Google Docs nor Zoho Writer could correctly display or print a tabular Word document that used spacebar characters, rather than tabs, to align table elements vertically. Both OpenOffice and Word rendered the file correctly.

And although you can send a Google document to someone in your contacts list with a single click, Google Docs and Spreadsheets insisted that one contact's address was invalid (it worked fine in Gmail, however).

If a glitch such as that leaves you reluctant to give up your desktop apps, you might like Zoho Office's plug-in for synchronising local Office files with Zoho's server, making them available both online and off.

Unfortunately for business people, Zoho Show had trouble properly displaying several complex PowerPoint presentations. Zoho Viewer also mysteriously refused to open a 5MB PDF file, although its file size limit is 10MB and it had no difficulty reading other PDFs. (Many online applications do impose a limit on permissible document size.)

Although I've never got into using Microsoft's One Note for organising research, I now rely heavily on Google Notebook. Zoho Notebook is even better – but using linked applications is just so easy. For example, I can send documents from Google Docs to Gmail with a single click; to mail a Zoho doc with Gmail, I must first save it to disk or manually cut and paste a web link between the two.

Still, Zoho's suite of online tools includes several that are conspicuously absent from Google, including Zoho Creator for designing databases.

NEXT PAGE: Always connected > >

Scott Spanbauer gave up desktop software applications for one week, working solely on the web. He loved it so much he still hasn't gone back to the desktop

Always connected, always safe?

Connectivity matters with web apps. Long flights and train rides are likely to separate you from your web-hosted data.

Even this problem could vanish in the near future, however. Google's engineers are perfecting an offline synchronisation plug-in, Google Gears. But so far only Google's RSS feed reader is fully compatible with it.

Via Google Gears, Zoho Writer offers partial compatibility, permitting you to cache and view read-only documents while offline. By the time you read this, the company may offer full offline synchronisation.

Another major concern about online apps: what happens if a natural disaster or server outage wipes out my data? Google backs up data files almost as often as users change them, while Zoho's official response is "do not worry".

But, to be cautious, you should download and archive your key documents regularly – another reason why high-speed access is vital.

Privacy concerns may scare off some people. You have to trust a third-party to protect your unencrypted email and other data on their servers. But for me, the convenience outweighs the risk that Google will fumble the ball on security. I like being only an internet connection and a mouse click away from my documents on the web.