Computing from the Web

What’s old is new again. In the old days of computers, you used a “dumb terminal” and rented processing time on a big mainframe computer. Today, you once again can use a computer with minimal processing power and run programs that reside elsewhere.

Only today, you access these programs, called Web apps, through the Internet.

It works this way: Instead of installing computer applications, or programs, onto the hard disk of your computer, you log onto a Web site and use apps that are installed there. You access some Web apps through your Web browser and others through a custom interface. With some Web apps, you can print and save data to your own hard drive, but with most, the bulk of the processing occurs at a distant server.

The benefits are that you outsource the software maintenance chore to others and that you can access your apps and data with any computer connected to the Internet. The drawbacks are that if you’re not connected, you’re not computing, and even when you are connected, unless you have a fast connection, you’ll incur a sizable speed penalty.

The biggest players in the software industry are getting involved, including Microsoft. Bill Gates says the reason he recently quit his post as Microsoft’s chief executive officer was to spend more time developing Web versions of Microsoft’s products. (Many analysts, however, believe that another, perhaps overriding, reason was Gates’ desire to influence the U.S. Justice Department as it weighs penalties against the software behemoth for abusing its alleged monopoly power.)

Today many Web apps are free, though larger or specialized apps can require fees. The first Web apps were e-mail programs such as Hotmail. Some of the handiest Web apps today are those that help manage your personal information, whether you’re a home or business user.

Excite Planner, at http://planner.excite.com, is the best Web app of this kind that I’ve found. It tracks your schedule, contacts, to-do items, and notes and synchronizes with Microsoft Outlook and the Palm hand-held devices.

SmartOnline.com, at http://www.smartonline. com, is more business-oriented. It not only lets you create a calendar and to-do list, but also provides business letters, legal forms, business and marketing plan generators, and an incorporation guide. Other Web apps are more focused, performing just a single task.

“- X:Drive, at http://www.xdrive.com, provides off-site storage, which is convenient for sharing documents or backing up a few files. X:Drive distinguishes itself by letting you use an interface familiar to you, whether it’s Windows Explorer or a third-party utility such as Mijenix’s PowerDesk.

“- NetStudio.com, at http://www.netstudio.com, helps you create Web graphics such as buttons, headings, banners and photos.

“- Quicken TurboTax for the Web, at http:// www.turbotax.com, provides forms and help for completing your income taxes. Filling out a 1040EZ is free. A more complex return costs $9.95, and a state return costs another $9.95.

“- NetLedger, at http://www.netledger.com, lets you and your co-workers work on the company’s books from any location.

Office suites such as Microsoft Office are beginning to become available on the Web as well, through application service providers (ASPs). But don’t expect Microsoft to give away its cash cow for free. It derives more than one-third of its income from Microsoft Office, according to analysts. At Personable.com, http://www.personable.com, you can rent Microsoft Office for fees ranging from $9.95 to $24.95 per month, plus access and usage fees charged by the site itself.

Sun Microsystems is Microsoft’s main competition in online office apps. Its StarOffice suite is available as a free download at http://www.sun.com/staroffice. You can also run it as a Web app for $30 per month at the ASP Thinter.net, http://www.thinter.net.

Office suites are complex programs, so don’t expect stellar performance over the Web. Microsoft Office was agonizingly slow over a 56K modem, particularly with Word tables and Excel worksheets. I also tested it over a cable modem, and though the speed increased considerably, the going was slower than normal.

Still, Web productivity apps are worth considering for individuals with older hardware or limited hard disk space, casual users who need a program for a short time, newer or smaller companies who want to use industrial-strength applications without committing significant financial or personnel resources, and larger companies seeking stable and predictable software costs.

Thus far Web apps have been more popular with individuals than companies, though more companies are expected to embrace them in the future. In the meantime, ASPs such as Digex are attracting millions of dollars in investments from big names such as Compaq and Microsoft.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http:// members. home.net/reidgold.

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