Living without the Desktop

Here is an article I have written and submitted to the now active-again Living Without Microsoft website, run by John Naughton and Quentin Stafford-Fraser.

You would have thought that working without desktop applications would be pretty tricky. But there are now a growing number of online tools which can help you get things done online just as, if not more, effectively than by using traditional apps. All you need is a fairly quick internet connection and the will to try something new.

There are loads of different applications out there and it would be nigh-on impossible to list them all. Here’s a selection of some of the better known ones, and no doubt many more will be suggested via the comments.


An easy one this – everyone has a webmail account, right? But these accounts are getting more and more sophisticated, and generous in the provision of space for your emails to be stored in. The two big players, Yahoo! and Microsoft’s Hotmail, were shaken up by the appearance of Google’s Gmail (now Google Mail in parts of Europe including the UK) and are now working on new, more richly featured services. The new Yahoo! Mail looks to offer an online equivalent of desktop mail clients, and Microsoft’s Live Mail is heading the same way.

Word Processing

Why use an online word processor? There are tonnes of reasons, but the main ones are accessibility and collaboration. Writely is the clear leader in online document editing – allowing users to upload Word files and edit and save them online. Other users can be invited to edit the same document. So, no more carrying documents on CD, USB flash drive or (heaven forbid!) floppy disk; or emailing them here, there and everywhere with the inevitable version control problems that result.


Unlike word processing, there isn’t really a standout service for spreadsheets. NumSum is probably the best option, because it works. It offers the basic spreadsheet functions we all know and love, and makes it possible to share access to the file for collaborative working. It doesn’t look all that great, however. You can’t at the moment download your work into a desktop file (as far as I can tell) but you can copy and paste into a desktop spreadsheet application.

The other option for spreadsheeting, where using the sheet as a rudimentary database is the aim, then Jotspot Tracker might be for you. Currently in beta and offering new users a maximum of two trackers (i.e. spreadsheets), this service looks a whole lot better than NumSum but doesn’t do as much. There’s no formulas for example. Instead, the focus is on project management, with a calender view that shows any dates listed in the Tracker in a calendar format.

Personal Information Management

HipCal used to be called MyPimp, before the developers realised that they were getting too popular not to be respectable. This site offers a nice calendar, to-do lists and a quite sophisticated address book. The only problem is that at the moment, those who like their days to come before their months in date formats will find themselves a little confused – though they are working on date representation, apparently.

Web Publishing

These days, personal websites don’t have to be the crapathons they used to be. Easy to use content management systems are everywhere these days, and you don’t need your own domain and hosting account to have an easily-updated, stylish looking website, let alone a hideously expensive HTML editor on your desktop. Google’s Blogger is simple and easy to set-up and use. WordPress is a great customisable CMS and you can sign up for a hosted site at, or BlogSome. There are countless others – TypePad and LiveJournal for example.

Photo Management

The obvious choice here is Yahoo!’s Flickr, which allows the user to upload photographs, which can then be organised into ‘sets’, shared with others and posted to blogs. Great fun.

Google has a kind-of entry in this category with Picasa, which is a desktop application that lets you upload and share photos with a service called Hello. I must admit, however, that I have never actually understood what Hello actually does.

News Aggregators

With the growth of news and information provision on the web, new ways of receiving and reading that information are being developed too. One of the most rapid-growing of these is RSS and its kindred spirits, Atom and RDF, which automatically sends a site’s new content to an application called an aggregator. These can be desktop based, or you can access them wherever you happen to log in with services like Bloglines and Newsgator.

Bookmark management

Why have one set of bookmarks saved in your desktop browser when you can have them available to you wherever you are? Sites such as and Furl (amongst others) allows you to save links to sites and tag them with keywords so that others may find them through a search and benefit from them too.


OK, not exactly a desktop replacement service but useful nonetheless. Create a personalised homepage, accessible from anywhere, containing some favourite links, news and site feeds and other information using services like Google Personalised Homepage or (my favourite) Protopage.

All of this barely scratches the surface of what is available, and there are likely to be further advances making the online experience as close to the desktop as possible. Perhaps one day the desktop will be rendered obsolete – though until all these new services start to tie in together more seamlessly, it is unlikely to happen.

Of course, to make the most of all these exciting web developments, you really need to have a decent browser