SHIFT: An online operating system?

Each week Adam Frucci takes a closer look at the latest gadget buzz in his column, Shift.

Image by Matt Krueger

With the rapid advances in computing power over the years, it seems ironic that the personal computer could someday be used by most people to connect to the Internet and do little else. But that's exactly what may happen, with common programs such as e-mail, word processing, and photo editing moving online and off of people's home computers. With programs such as Gmail, Writely, Flickr, and Del.icio.us replacing formerly universal PC applications, is it only a matter of time before there's an online operating system, making the PC little more than an access point for a computer stored on a server farm in Oregon? Probably not.

We've already seen quite a few formerly local applications move online in a big way. The most obvious example is e-mail. What used to be something that required a program such as Outlook Express is now mostly online, with services such as Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo's mail services making Outlook Express seem like a dinosaur. While the first incarnations of online e-mail applications were clunky, littered with invasive ads, and restrictive due to space requirements, the new versions are just as fully functional as any local client, if not more so. Look at Gmail, for example. Anyone who uses it can tell you that it behaves more like a program than a website, with dynamic pop-down menus filling in addresses for you, automatic draft saving, and a built-in instant-messaging client that's seamlessly integrated into the layout.

E-mail may be the most widely used online application, but more are coming. Just look at the top left corner of a Gmail window; you'll see a new menu offering to bring you to your calendar or spreadsheets. Yes, spreadsheets — just like Microsoft Excel can do. Much like Gmail, Google Spreadsheets is more of a program than a web page, giving you an admittedly basic document editor without installing anything on your PC. What's the benefit of this? Well, the piles of USB thumb drives cropping up all over the place are there because people need ways to transport files from one computer to another. If I created and edited a document using Google Spreadsheets, I can just open it up and edit it anywhere. Furthermore, a colleague can log on and edit it as well without us needing to send versions back and forth. Google has also just purchased Writely, an online word processor that should be joining its brethren at the top of Gmail in the near future.

While online applications are sure to become more and more sophisticated, it's doubtful that people will abandon their standalone apps. After all, if you couldn't edit a document without an online program, you'd be pretty much screwed if your connection went out. Not many people trust their ISPs enough to risk getting stuck with a computer that can't really do anything. As for the benefits of not running things on your computer, today's computers already have more power than you need to run most applications — at least any that could feasibly moved online. Basic applications like word processors don't use much in the way of system resources, so your PC wouldn't run any faster if you deleted them from your computer and ran them online instead. Despite that fact, manufacturers are still racing to one-up each other in the speed department and people are racing out to buy them. Nothing could happen for manufacturers to stop making faster machines and admit that current models are all you need; after all, their whole business model relies on the assumption that you'll want a faster machine in a couple of years.

Rather than seeing online apps as just a carbon copy of what we already have, software makers should look to see how they can integrate online and offline applications. Since there's no real benefit to getting rid of a word processor from your computer, why not have one that can work both on and offline? If Word saved your documents automatically to both your local drive as well as online for later editing, it would provide not only a way to share and edit on the go but as a backup system as well. If Microsoft created a Writely-esque extension of Word accessible online that would sync up to your home version, it would improve upon what you already have rather than trying to get you to ditch something that already works fine. Isn't that what makes an application groundbreaking?