Living online, with web apps

If your business is based on the web, it pays to do as much of your management and development with web apps yourself. With something like Google Browser Sync, you can move from your computer to any other computer on earth and pick up right where you left off.

I'm not the first to notice this — Ev is the first person I saw pushing people to use as many web apps (instead of desktop programs) as possible. Over the last year I've moved almost everything I do online and away from my local computer. It's handy to check email anywhere with Gmail, I can chat anyone up on IM using Meebo, I keep track of my expenses in Google Spreadsheet, photos get uploaded to Flickr, my schedule is in Google Calendar, every friend with a cellphone is simply a direct Twitter message away, my bookmarks are in del.icio.us, my RSS is handled by Google Reader, and I'm writing this in Google Docs, where I keep all my drafts of essays and ideas. I can manage my money with Wesabe, which talks to my local bank and my business account (which lets me pay employees online). I can also track my investment bank and do my taxes online. Pretty much anything having to do with my business and personal life is online and easily retrievable. I barely use my operating system's taskbar/dock — my bookmark toolbar launches every app I need. People have been promising this kind of thing for over a decade and it was always just around the corner but for the last year, it finally became a reality to me.

I hop from computer to computer fairly often even though I work out of my own home. I run a desktop in my home office, but I use a laptop several times a week when I'm working outside of my home. Whenever I have lunch with my wife, I pop onto her office laptop for a minute to check on things. I also carry a blackberry pearl, and whenever I travel to visit family, I'm usually borrowing an ancient windows machine to get online. The one common aspect of all those environments is that there is a web browser, and because almost everything I do can be done with a browser, I'm free to do whatever I need.

Picture%204.png To demonstrate the power of this kind of thing, I'd like to focus specifically on a browser add-on that hasn't gotten nearly enough good press: Google's Browser Sync (GBS). On the surface, it doesn't sound all that amazing. My first impression was that it'd copy my local bookmarks across computers, whoop de doo. Instead, I've found it does a heck of a lot more.

It not only keeps your local bookmarks in sync across computers, it also acts as a session saver across computers. If you had four tabs open on your browser at home when you went to sleep, when you login to a laptop at work the next day, GBS will ask you if you want to open all four tabs and pick up where you left off. It also syncs your cookies, browser history, every auto-fill form, and saved passwords across machines. While that may sound like a bit of a privacy problem, you can't sync anything without knowing a login, password, and secret pin, and all negotiation is done over a secure line. In the end, it's insanely convenient to have login fields auto-populate when you're on a new machine. I've heard about research institutions that have robust client-server systems where everyone walks around with an ID card, slides it into a slot on a terminal, and they're met with their entire workspace as they left it previously, and they can jump to any other terminal on campus and never lose their place. That's exactly what GBS does for you, when your entire workspace exists in a browser.

I'm writing this essay while on vacation, in a hotel room on a brand new computer (my wife's first new laptop in four years after our trip is over). After getting online, I downloaded Firefox and GBS and after a couple minutes of downloading info, I was exactly at the point I was working on my home desktop computer the day before. I was logged into every web app I was using, and my browser's bookmark toolbar turned into the web app launcher I've set it up to be. Literally ten minutes after I took this computer out of the box, I had finished checking my sites, my bank account, my email, and what my friends were up to, just as I would have at home.

Of course, this isn't perfect and there are drawbacks. The biggest stumbling block I've run into is with Gmail and having email archives online instead of locally stored. It's been a problem once when I was stuck without a car rental in a weird airport that didn't have wireless. I couldn't pull up my confirmation email because Gmail was offline to me (I eventually got it on my phone). There is talk of Firefox 3.0 someday allowing offline use of web apps to fill this void. I've also found that not everything can be done in a browser; The biggest thing I'm missing is actual web development tools. On this new computer I needed three apps before I could do everything: Firefox, Transmit, and Textmate. I await the day when someone can recreate Textmate in a browser window, complete with code bundles, syntax coloring, and ftp/ssh support to pull files in from remote servers. Just about the last thing I ever thought would go online is Photoshop, but it looks like that is coming to a browser near you soon. Of course, there will always be privacy concerns when moving your life and financial details online, but I came to the realization that every bit of data about my life is already in a database somewhere. With web apps like these I've mentioned, at least I have some control over, and access to, that data. It's definitely not for everyone and half the people I know purposely avoid doing many of the things I've described here.

People often ask me how I can keep track of my numerous websites, run a successful small business, and raise a family without going crazy. I don't have any secret system and I don't follow things like Getting Things Done. A year after moving pretty much everything I do online, I have to say it has helped immensely with staying organized and on top of things. Overall, I've found moving my life into web applications has made my business dealings more convenient, my stress levels are down as everything is at my fingertips no matter where I am, and it doesn't matter too much what kind of computer or device I'm using to access my information. Oh, and I'll never have to keep track of install CDs or Microsoft serial number stickers ever again.

Here are some criteria for judging whether you're willing to make the leap to online applications:

  • Can you deal with less direct support? Many desktop applications have a phone number that you can call for help — very few online applications do. If you're like me, you usually just search the web for help with a program when you get stuck. That works great with these applications.
  • Do you mind spending a few bucks? Though all of these applications have free versions, and some won't even let you pay, a lot of the best ones (like TurboTax or the Pro versions of Google Apps and Flickr) cost a few dollars a month. It's well worth it, and still much cheaper than a desktop application.
  • Are you obsessive about having your own copies of your data? Don't sweat it — lots of people are really fixated on having their information on a machine that sits on their desk. But if you're going to worry about it, online apps aren't for you. The truth is, most online services back up their data a lot more often than the average user does.
  • You don't have to do it all at once. If you're still tied to Microsoft Word or Mail.app or Quicken or something, don't throw your favorite app away. Just consider where an online alternative can save you time and stress, and start experimenting from there.

April 30, 2007 at 23:13 #
Gen Kanai

Cool new site Matt.

Might I suggest the use of the snazzy new Thunderbird 2.0 (with Gmail integration) for offline email reading? All you have to do is fire up Thunderbird before you travel, sync up with Gmail (make sure to keep the setting so that your email stays on the server) and then Tbird can be your offline backup to Gmail.

April 30, 2007 at 23:15 #
George Kelly

Well said (about Web apps) and well done (about the site).

May 1, 2007 at 00:05 #
Aymeric

Wow, the design of your blog is the best I've ever seen.

Congratulations.

May 1, 2007 at 00:07 #
Chris Coyier

This is the future - and it is as amazing as it is scary.

You highlighted all the amazing stuff. Getting a brand new computer and being up and working in exactly the same environment within minutes blows my mind.

The scary part is that you are trusting your entire livelihood to a) your ability to be online anytime you need to be and b) somebody else's servers. I'm not sure many people are ready for that leap of faith.

I get cold sweats when gmail goes down for an hour. I can't imagine how I would feel if every single one of my files was at the same kind of mercy.

May 1, 2007 at 00:45 #
Gordon

I'm slowly, ohh so slowly, moving more and more towards a similar model but must admit I hadn't even considered GBS as a way to store and move my 'work environment'.

I know this probably isn't the place but I'd love to see more of how you have yours setup... until then I'm off to see what I can come up with.

Best of luck with the gorgeous new blog as well, although it's off to a flyer already.

May 1, 2007 at 03:12 #
Federico Bo

Ciao.
Seems a very interesting (and nice) blog.
A little suggestion: maybe could be helpful thing a very short abstract in every post, at the incipit or the end, three rows at maximum.
Or a "tag" sentence whitin the post.
So, for example, will be possible "to tumblr" the post.

May 1, 2007 at 05:20 #
Andrew

Love the design - I'm slowly migrating my life to be more fully web-appable, but I still have my own compulsive needs to back up a few things, like my pictures.

I'm sure I'll eventually learn to trust that adequate backups exist online, I'm just not quite there yet.

May 1, 2007 at 05:50 #
Rapiere

Looking for news about webapps I noticed your article which is the perfect reflect of how entrepreneurs can evolve : building their own company by plugging web2.0 bricks around a new idea or service and make it available massively quickly in order to prevent others from copying it locally.

In a world where technical requirements will be more ubiquitous remains in my opinion at least two things that can select the best ideas : marketing and designing.

Finally the web master won't just wear a boring technical hat.

May 1, 2007 at 07:35 #
mxt

How I try to get people living on line is by comparing your money to your data.

You keep your money in a bank because it's secure - a vault, convenient - ATMs, and earns interest.

You keep your data online because it's secure - backed-up, convenient - access through any URL device, and earns interest through social networking.

You'd never keep your dotcom riches under your mattress would you? ;-)

May 1, 2007 at 08:50 #
Mike

Nice blog. The fade at the bottom makes me particularly happy...

I'm up for all of the above, but interestingly where I am still hitching is in complete online data storage/backup. As a full time geeker myself, this seems like it should be an obvious next step - back it up to the Cloud and never worry about your hard drive getting screwed/nicked/lost/filled with Coke again. But strangely I'm resistant to the notion that my data might all be "out there" rather than under my desk. Go figure.

May 1, 2007 at 10:08 #
Rich

Something I've never seen addressed by the "live life online" folks (and I'm one of them) is the problem of keyloggers and the like. You obviously don't have to worry at home, and the odds of a keylogger at the wife's office are low (and it's not likely to be malicious), but what about traveling? Hotels don't exactly have the most well-kept networks around (see: all the people who come home from a business trip with a virus), and the possibility of a keylogger on a hotel PC would have to be much higher.

I assume you just say "sod it" and take the chance with your money and your online identity?

[possible bug: the interesting "greying out" effect at the page bottom applies to the text in the comment box as well. I would guess this is unintended, but maybe I'm wrong)

May 1, 2007 at 10:36 #
Matt Haughey

Rich, I usually use a VPN like Hotspot when I'm on a strange open wireless network.

May 1, 2007 at 14:05 #
Jason Gilman

Matt, very timely post (and site). I'm planning to start biking to and from work regularly now that the weather is getting warmer and I've been contemplating ways to downsize what I carry with me. Initially I was thinking I would haul a smaller laptop back and forth, but then I realized there was no reason to at all. I wouldn't be using it will biking and I've got plenty of usable computers at work and at home that I can use. I'm pretty confident that I can get by just fine using web applications for the majority of my needs and I'm definitely going to check out Google Browser Sync, that's one piece of the puzzle I've been looking for.

May 1, 2007 at 15:18 #
Drew

Could you demonstrate how you use Google Spreadsheets to keep track of your expenses? I have a busy layout and I'm wondering about how to simplify it. I also have many several categories for write-offs, so it gets to be a lot of work maintaining sometimes and scrolls off the screen. Wesabe was one of the only sites you mentioned I hadn't seen before - do you think it would work as a replacement for a spreadsheet in this sense?

May 1, 2007 at 19:40 #
Zelnox

^_^ Yeeee-haw. I'm liking this new site already.

It'd be amazing for an online Textmate-like editor. I'm trying out http://www.createworkspace.com/ It already has syntax colouring and FTP access. I am certain someone must have suggested the team to add snippets, but we'll see.

May 1, 2007 at 20:38 #
Matt Haughey

Drew, for my own stuff, I just keep a running log of expenses with date, amount, and short description, then I pick one of 6 or 7 categories that it falls into.

May 1, 2007 at 20:56 #
Workspace

Zelnox: We are looking into those features for our upcoming releases. We hope to get more feedback from users like you to make Workspace a great app. :)

Thanks again.

May 2, 2007 at 03:09 #
Alex Pounds

I've heard about research institutions that have robust client-server systems where everyone walks around with an ID card, slides it into a slot on a terminal, and they're met with their entire workspace as they left it previously, and they can jump to any other terminal on campus and never lose their place.

If by "research institutions" you mean "anyone with a SunRay system", yes. Sun Microsystems have been doing this for years - it's a commercial product. Run a SunRay server and scatter SunRay clients throughout your company. Then the ID card works just as you describe - pull your card out of the machine to lock it, wander over to another machine and put it back in, and (after typing your screensaver password) you get your session back. Sound is handled intelligently too. You can do this across offices too - pull card out of office in Manchester, stick it in machine in office in London, and get everything back too. As the Sunrays are thin clients (or "dumb terminals" depending on how old you are) they run cold, don't have any fans, and have no moving parts.

Anyway, my point is that this isn't confined to research. It's been purchasable for years.

May 2, 2007 at 10:21 #
Rob

I have been using the Zoho suite (CRM + office apps) to run a small business for about a year. I have nothing but good things to say about it. Great service, elegant apps. Surprised there was no mention above.

May 2, 2007 at 12:58 #
JON

Thanks for the excellent post. Some fantastic tips. I'm also working freelance around the world and am constantly using different computers. I appreciate the tips. Ill definitely be following your blog in the future.

cheers,
JON.
theradblog.com

May 2, 2007 at 13:13 #
Andy

I love most of the apps you've mentioned, but my one hesitation to going completely online is an issue that I have not seen addressed in similar articles.

What if one of the companies who serve the apps goes under? I don't think any business is immune from failure. Even the mightiest of the mighty can fall.

I love the concept of using online apps, but what I'd ultimately like to see happen is people owning their own servers for those apps.

May 2, 2007 at 13:50 #
Terence Patrick

Very interesting use of online apps. I'm curious how you sync your Blackberry contacts & calendar with the Google apps? I've been trying to find a quicker solution than syncing with Apple Mail.app/iCal/Address Book, exporting CSV files, then importing into Gmail/Gcal. Thanks.

May 2, 2007 at 14:32 #
Justin

Hey there. Great looking blog.

I'm also a huge fan of GBS. It takes away all my anxiety of remembering what I was doing at work once I get home and vice versa the next morning.

Another add-on I found that I've only started using but seems promising is FireFTP. The best thing about it that I've found so far is the ability to drag and drop files for upload right into the window. I wish Gmail attachments worked like this.

May 2, 2007 at 15:22 #
rfbjames

I don't run a web business or plan to, but I still wanted to say thanks for pointing me to Wesabe. It is exactly what I had been looking for in money management...

May 2, 2007 at 17:05 #
Matthew

Justin, there is an extension that lets you drag and drop files into file upload fields. It's great. Google for "dragdropupload".

May 2, 2007 at 20:35 #
MSM

I'd like to second FireFTP. Since I installed that extension I haven't opened a desktop FTP client again.

I like online apps a lot and using the browser for as much as possible, but what's really working for me is a fast, chunky USB stick with portable apps for Mac and Windows installed and a shared data directory on the stick. I can carry around some great apps (including Firefox, which I do use with the Google Sync product) and my data is with me and backed up online, too. I even get to carry a development environment or two (Python and Ruby) with me.

I've tried this with my iPod, too. Haven't needed to carry a laptop in a while, though I still do.

May 2, 2007 at 23:31 #
Dan

Wow. I've never stayed up this late because of one blog post before (I've been a'signin' up for some accounts). Awesome list of apps!

May 3, 2007 at 00:47 #
Glen Murphy

Yay++, glad you like GBS and see it as the machine-independence tool that we (the developers) do.

May 3, 2007 at 00:56 #
Gilbert

Great looking blog! I love this post. Never heard of Google Browser Sync. I'll have to try it.

Also... here's a great article on the same subject, written 3 years ago by Annalee Newitz, on the heels of Google's release of Gmail. She's highly critical, but not without a solution... Encrypt Everything!

http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/05.05.04/gmail-0419.html

A few tasty excerpts:

"On its face, the company's proposed service sounded positively dreamy: a free Gmail account comes with a whopping gigabyte of storage space (vs. the four to six megabytes that competitors Hotmail and Yahoo! offer); it's fueled by Google's massive server farms; and a Gmail box can be full-text searched using the company's fabled secret-sauce algorithms. There's just one catch. To pay for this amazing free service, Google is serving up a few little ads with each email. No big deal.

"Except these ads are context sensitive. They're generated by bots reading your email the instant you open it, discerning key concepts in the message and choosing ads that somehow fit with the content of your email. So an email from your friend about picking up some bagels will be accompanied by ads for bagel shops in your area. An email from your lover which refers to an intimate moment you had the night before might include ads for sex toys or online dating services."

and............

"Privacy advocate Garfinkle worries that we are entering an era when most of our information will be stored with third parties, thus placing nearly everyone in a position to have their private communications searched at any time without notice. Gmail is merely the thin end of the wedge. "Computing will be a service in the future," postulates Garfinkle. "You'll have a terminal at home, and all your data will be stored at Google. This could be a future where that data is basically jointly owned by you and Google. I don't want to live in a future where I share all my information with Google."

and............

"...even if Gmail users have chosen the company despite its privacy policies, people who send mail to Gmail customers haven't. Nevertheless, their private communications will reside on a third-party server indefinitely.

"Another storage issue that's created a lot of controversy is a section in the Gmail privacy policy where the company states that even after you delete your mail, copies of it may be retained "for some time" on Google's system."

and............

"This would result in a treasure trove of data that the Department of Justice would love to get its hands on. TIA may have failed, but perhaps Google won't. EPIC's Hoofnagle says this is a particularly dangerous situation. He worries, "We'll start seeing arguments from policy makers like the Heritage Foundation saying, 'Your email is already scanned for commercials, why not for acts of terrorism?' That's a hard argument to rebut. How do you argue that one use is appropriate but the other isn't?" "

and........

"If Gmail users don't want Google's bots (or law enforcement) to read their email without permission, they should encourage Google to encrypt all communications data on their servers using an enterprise-level mail encryption such as PGP Universal (www.pgp.com/products/universal/). As long as users maintain the keys that encode their data, their mail will only be decrypted once it's on the user's own computer."

May 3, 2007 at 17:21 #
Guillaume

Cool post. I share your ideas quite a lot myself. As regarding offline syncing, I read something about Dojo offline toolkit that allows to do what you idealized for Firefox 3.0!

May 3, 2007 at 19:10 #
gary

The problem isn't trusting having data online. The problem is having access to that data. I love online solutions, but going completely online as you're suggesting brings its own set of problems. And even more-so for those who don't live in a super connected city.

I use gmail, and it's my backup, but I also use mail.app for current emails and also composing email. Without an online connection, I'd have no email if I was gmail only. I use google calendar, but I also sync it with iCal. I don't want to lose my schedule just because I have no connection. Google reader is great, but if I'm not connected it's useless. With an actual desk application I can download my feeds and read them anywhere.

The best scenario for me is a desktop app that syncs with an online version. For instance, omnigroup is looking at having a web interface for their new omnifocus application. Phone apps, like the one for gmail, help a little, but they don't solve the problem. Off line versions of gmail etc sounds great, but I'm not sure that's much different than having a desktop version.

There's been a push to put everything online for a while now, and none of these apps are new to me. I was hoping for solutions to the problems, but nothing here really discusses that, and let's face it, it's because at this point they don't exist. The user basically has to make the jump with the understanding that it's not perfect by any means. I think it's great that you don't need a gtd solution or something similar matt, nor do you have problems with access to your stuff, but many people need both of those, and I think a good portion of people taking your advice would end up regretting it.

May 5, 2007 at 11:01 #
jan korbel

As for the online Photoshop, why wait http://www.picnik.com/

May 6, 2007 at 10:13 #
Chris Peters

Great new blog!

This phenomenon of having your life online will get interesting as better mobile devices are developed. I'm looking forward to having a mobile device that directly accesses or syncs my contacts with Gmail, and other related functionality sexiness.

May 19, 2007 at 17:18 #
Matthew

One thing that bothers me, but that I haven't heard many people talk about: as more and more things more into the browser, it makes multitasking and app-switching harder. If everyhting is running in firefox, all I see in my taskbar (or dock) is a bunch of firefox windows. Sure, I can still alt-tab between them but it takes significantly longer to discern which is which than it does to spot a unique desktop program (with its own icon and all). Something the OS could help improve, but for now it's a small problem.

Then there's other minor risks: like when firefox crashes, all of your web apps go down (it's happened to me before at unpleasant moments.) And the fact that many web apps will allow you to accidentlly close the window/tab or navigate away from a multiple-step process without regard to the work you may be losing. Some are starting to tighten that up, but for now it's still the case that web apps leave you more open to accidental data loss.

I've moved many things over to web versions (just converted to gcal) but not without some trepidation.







 


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