I must be missing something in the clouds

For a long time now there have been web applications mirroring pretty much all the applications I use locally, email, calendar, spreadsheets, etc. I keep looking at these and feeling like I should jump on the bandwagon, after all lots of the people I work with use them and rave about them so they must be great right? The problem is I can’t figure out what I am actually missing, and most of the time I can spot immediately things I would miss by moving to them.

Obviously one clear benefit is that they are available anywhere in the world, you just need access to any computer with a modern web-browser. But you know what? Wherever I go in the world I take my laptop, or if I don’t it is because I really want to relax and be offline completely. About the only critical thing that I might need to get updates on is my mail, which I do have a webmail access to anyway.

The online services seem to fall down for me in a bunch of ways:

  • I like to be able to run applications separately from my browser. I’ll grant you that tools like Prism make this sort of thing possible so that failure is going away slowly.
  • No matter how good browsers become I don’t believe HTML will ever create as good a UI as a real application can. For the most part they are restricted to a single window interface, with pseudo windows hovering above looking nothing like platform native.
  • They need you to be online (let’s ignore gears and stuff for the moment, I haven’t found the technology to be quite there enough yet). As I said I take my laptop everywhere. I can look at all my mail and calendar without needing to pay for an internet connection in some random hotspot.
  • They simply don’t have the features that my local apps do. I expect this to change over the years but many of the online offerings are basic at best.
  • How do I back up my data? Seriously, if I want to back up my gmail or google calendar what do I do? If I want to back up my local mail and calendar I just plug in a hard disk and let OSX deal with it. Obviously the opposite to this is that if my machine goes down then the online service will still be there and I’ll only have a potentially stale backup, but my backup is never more than a week old, and I can tell you I’ve lost more data over the years due to online systems going down than local machines breaking.

So here I am, wondering (again) what to do about task management. I keep feeling drawn to things like Remember The Milk because they are all online and Web2.0ish, but I’m not sure quite why. I’m sure I must be missing something critical about using the online apps, but I just can’t figure out what it is.

7 thoughts on “I must be missing something in the clouds”

  1. I don’t get the web apps either. I do rely solely on IMAP for mail, so no offline copies, but I have my calendars locally and sync one with zimbra.

    For task management, I picked up the thread on the intranet and installed the trial of “Things”. Looks like candy, but I don’t yet know if it’s gonna help.

  2. They are great for colaboration. I use google docs, and it allows you to have more than one person editing a document at the same time with the updates propogating in seconds. This can be a drawback for something like a spreadsheet if you want to sort it or run temporary operations (they would automatically propogate to any other users), but I guess you could work around that by creating a copy.

    I would say you are less likely to lose your data with an online service, but that does depend on who you choose (how likely they are to go out of business or just abandon the application) and what your personal backup practises are (for the vast majority of people the answer is very poor).

  3. Agreed. I use IMAP (mainly cause I access email from different computers) but I backup by copying to a non-IMAP account.

    Calendar goes to Google but I download it periodically to keep a backup. Wish lightning did this automatically. Even better if it held weekly revisions for a few weeks (just in case).

    UI wise, I find client side is faster and more intuitive.

    I’ve been considering Remember The Milk Pro mainly for iPhone sync. Things is nice, but it only syncs with a Mac. I’ve got multiple computers with multiple OS’s and don’t want to be tied down. I like accessing my todo list from multiple places. They have xml downloadable so you can backup. I think that’s acceptable.

  4. I’ll admit, I’m mostly a cloud convert. I keep all of my email in gmail, and I use Google Calendar for all my calendaring. While the UI of each might not be as good as a native desktop app, I never have to worry about which of my computers I’m using when I want to access something. IMAP does help this, but that still means I’d have to install a mail client on three different computers at my house. Additionally, I have no idea how I’d replicate the functionality I get from Google Calendar with something like iCal. Right now I have a calendar that is shared with my wife, and she has one that’s shared with me, so we can both see and edit each other’s events. We’ve also setup NuevaSync to sync the calendars over-the-air to our iPhones, so we get two-way live updates to the calendars. I don’t have the slightest idea how I’d do that without Google Calendar.

    That being said, would it suck if all my mail and my calendar disappeared one day? Yes. I’d gladly pay Google for a service agreement, so at least I’d have some remediation. In reality though, my data is less likely to disappear from Gmail than anywhere on my home computers.

  5. Yeaass. I’ve been cooking up ideas around this for whole year now.

    For me, the perfect world would be one where I can have one cross platform application similar to Prism, Weave, or Google Gears on the desktop, laptop, and phone. The ‘cloud’ would serve as a central ‘repository’ where I could push and pull data similar to the source control systems developers are so used to. When I’m off line, I go about my business as usual, but when I access a device online, it ‘auto merges’ with my ‘central repository’.

    That is cloud computing in my world.

    — kixx

  6. The average user does not need to keep track of a complicated mess of options for most tasks, and you have to install programs. Webapps do not need to be installed. It’s about ease of use (most people can get internet most places that use webapps) and its about not caring about your data. Are you going to let your data control you, or are you going to control your data. If you have to create frequent backups, the data controls you. Still, maybe the data is you…

  7. Basically what you’re saying is that there are trade-offs when using web apps versus desktop apps. The drawbacks of web apps (many of which you mention) are pretty significant. It’s perfectly reasonable to prefer desktop apps over web apps for most or all categories, especially if you are technically savvy enough to configure an IMAP client and the like. At the same time, the benefits are pretty significant as well, and many people have adopted web apps for at least some of their needs because they weigh the trade-offs differently.

    More importantly, huge improvement is being made in each and every one of the areas you enumerate. As you point out, single-site browsers like Prism are addressing the first point. User experience is getting better and better through use of client-side script and asynchronous data sources, and this is sure to continue with the next wave of much faster JS engines. Offline functionality? Also coming. Features… you say you expect that to change. And as far as backup is concerned, I’d vastly prefer to let my cloud merchant deal with backups, providing there is some sort of guarantee (as Ted points out). That’ll happen eventually as well. In the meantime, I use Time Machine on my LAN, but I’m screwed if my computer is stolen or my building burns down (also pointed out by Ted).

    So the pendulum might not have swung far enough to get you on board yet, but I’d be willing to bet that you’ll see things differently in 2-3 years time.

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