If, in the early days of computing, there had been a buzz-word floating around the ether, it would have been decentralisation. At the time all calculating was done by mighty brutes known as mainframes, room-sized machines that toiled night and day at the whim of those distant and simple terminals used by human operators.
This started to change with the advent of the personal computer. As these upstart PCs grew more powerful they dared to challenge the mainframes’ monopoly. They had the calculating power for themselves; there was no need for the behemoths. Soon, networks went quiet; human operators sat in isolation, working alone.
With the public acceptance of the web, this began to reverse: there could be decentralisation without mainframes.
Lots of people do what I do, went the cry,
so why can’t I see how they do it; I can help them, they can help me.
As the computing world becomes more and more decentralised, people are realising more and more ways to free themselves from a single PC, work socially, and live a life online. This paper discusses how you can take to this new way of working, how you can decentralise your tasks and methods of working. It discusses the online applications you can use to replace your PC‘s programs, identifying both benefits and drawbacks.
Grow your own web platform
Web 2.0, a term not above criticism, is used to describe a new methodology for creating a web-computing platform; the web applications we will discuss all fall under its banner. You won’t need to know what Web 2.0 is to understand or use them, but if you want to learn more you can look at our paper Web 2.0: a very short introduction or read the comprehensive What is Web 2.0? by Tim O’Reilly.
Our aim is to show you how to use Web 2.0 applications to create an online platform
Our aim for this paper is to show you how to use Web 2.0 applications to create an online platform for word-processing, spreadsheets, email, image-sharing, file storage, collaborative working, and for keeping up-to-date with current events. The applications we’ve chosen are only one way to work, so take the chance to experiment. (See The best Web 2.0 software of 2005 for others.)
We need somewhere to start from, a central hub for the web platform, something like a desktop. A home page you can customise. This idea is very popular, with offerings from the likes of Microsoft and Google. One independent service is Netvibes, both intuitive and feature-filled. Netvibes has native support for some of the applications we will be using, plus a simple framework to allow other services to be included.
The first time you visit Netvibes you will see a home page ready to tailor to your needs. We will add all the services to a page so each time we open our browser we have everything in our view. Individual applications will be integrated through web services and RSS aggregation.
Writely is an online word-processor. While nowhere near as powerful (or complicated) as desktop word-processors, it includes most of the formatting you’ll need, the ability to review past edits, and allows for collaboration (you can invite others to edit documents and see the changes they make). Netvibes integrates well with Writely, meaning you can read — and edit — your documents from your home page. Additionally you can subscribe to all sorts of RSS feeds, including watching activity on documents or keeping an eye on friends’ document lists.
Netvibes offers seamless integration with Gmail, Google’s web-based email. Gmail is a free service, with Google making their money through adverts. Gmail has drawn some criticism due to the way they display adverts: computers read through your messages looking for keywords, using them to decide which adverts are relevant.
Controversy aside, Gmail has changed the way people use web-based email, making other services seem sluggish in comparison. Huge amounts of storage, a powerful categorisation method (beyond the simplistic “put this message in this folder”), and an awful lot of functionality make it very popular. It feels much more like a desktop application than a web site. And it has secure methods for other services to display your Gmail messages, meaning you can see your latest messages on your Netvibes home page.
People realised a long time ago that browser-based bookmarks were horribly hard to organise and manage. They had the further disadvantage of being available only on specific computers — your work bookmarks weren’t available to you at home. Our platform needs to work anywhere an up-to-date browser is available.
Delicious (recently acquired by Yahoo) is a web-based link manager, with a community where collective intelligence is exploited to allow you to browse bookmarks related to your own. This method of browsing provides a quality of link categorisation currently missing from search engines (perhaps why Yahoo bought Delicious?). Delicious provides RSS feeds to integrate with Netvibes.
Num Sum is to spreadsheets what Writely is to word-processing. Like a simple version of Microsoft Excel, it shares the social ideal of Delicious and the collaborative working of Writely. There is no direct way to integrate with Netvibes, but you can add a link to each spreadsheet to your Delicious bookmarks, and then add a spreadsheet-specific RSS feed to Netvibes.
A photo album
With the move to digital photography almost complete (Nikon recently announced they’d be following Kodak and Canon and would stop making most film-cameras), people are building up collections of digital photographs. It makes sense in the age of the internet that it should be easy to share these with family, friends, and the rest of the world.
A service that that receives an almost obsessive love from its users, Flickr, is the best photo-sharing application available. While some of its competitors have more users, its sense of community is unrivalled. You can often keep up-to-date with friends by browsing their photos rather than with emails and phone-calls.
Images can be organised into albums, but you can also take advantage of an emerging form of categorisation called folksonomy where photos are categorised through freely-chosen keywords known as tags. Tagging allows people to decide on the categorisation of their photos, and has seen some novel uses.
We can easily integrate Flickr into Netvibes with the custom Flickr component. Navigate to the groups of photos on Flickr you’re interested in (for example, your friends’ photos, or interesting photos of Edinburgh) and get the address of the RSS feed. Paste this address into the Flickr component in Netvibes, and new photos will be displayed.
Openomy is a free web-based file-storage application; you can use it to store your files online. You have to register for an account, but once done you get 1GB of storage space. Again it is possible to use RSS to link to your files and integrate it with Netvibes.
A great application that provides organisational and collaborative functionality is Backpack. Proud of its simplicity, the application can be used to organise a business trip, list items for sale, keep track of reminders, and more. You can mark pages as public or private, and allow friends to edit them as they see fit. It even has functionality similar to Writely so you can edit word-processor-like documents within your account.
The now obligatory RSS feeds allow for integration with Netvibes.
Perhaps the most thorough use of RSS is found on news sites. By subscribing to the feeds from BBC News and Guardian Unlimited, for example, you can keep track of current affairs, while sites like Digg offer more niche-market news. Google News even offers a service that only shows news articles that match your search.
For Netvibes we will simply add RSS feeds of various news sites to the home page for simplicity. In this way you can keep up-to-date with many news sources from a central location. If you find yourself subscribing to a sizeable collection of feeds you may want to consider using a web-based aggregator such as Bloglines.
While calendars are an important part of everyday business life, Web 2.0–based calendar applications are only starting to appear. CalendarHub is the most fully-featured. One of the most useful features is having events sent to your mobile phone when they are due. This is no match for Microsoft’s Pocket Outlook phone–desktop synchronisation but it does provide web-based calendaring, and Netvibes integration via RSS.
The most obvious drawback of using web-based services is also the most problematic: without an internet connection, you have no platform. And until network connectivity becomes freely available everywhere this will be a problem.
By working with distributed services you implicitly accept information will be travelling around the internet. Issues of data privacy will inevitably arise — is it acceptable for potentially sensitive information to be rushing between servers? Today some services use secure servers and authentication, but it’s worth checking whether secure capabilities are offered before distributing your information.
Your data is also subject to the status of the servers it resides on. Delicious recently had a power failure and data on servers was corrupted. Although in the end no data was lost, bookmarks were unavailable for some time. The same could be true for all services: you have to be sure you can rely on them being available when you need them.
The idea of Web 2.0 is in its infancy and consequently so are its applications. None of those mentioned above could replace the full-functionality of desktop applications — indeed replication of some important applications, such as Adobe’s Photoshop, has not been attempted. You’re still stuck with your desktop for now.
For now, all the applications mentioned in this paper are free, but some only offer all their features after you start paying a subscription. The danger with relying on hosted services is that you may suddenly start having to pay to see your data. This is a worst-case scenario, but one you need to consider. The future may see operating-systems offered free but their applications only available by subscription.
The web is becoming more and more important to modern life, especially in Western business. This large uptake encourages those with ideas to create exciting new ways to use the web. These ideas are those that important web companies — such as Google, Yahoo, and more recently Microsoft — are putting their money and expertise behind.
By pulling many of the applications that stem from these ideas together it is possible to harness this evolution and use the web as a computing platform. And while the current crop can’t replace your desktop entirely, they certainly want to head in that direction. In the next year or two we will see if they can continue their success and bring a life online closer to reality.
- Web 2.0: a very short introduction, Mercurytide, September 2005.
- What is Web 2.0?, Tim O’Reilly, September 2005.
- The best Web 2.0 software of 2005, Dion Hinchcliffe, January 2005.
- Collective intelligence, Wikipedia, December 2005. (Current edition.)
- Nikon plans to stop making most cameras that use film, New York Times, January 2006.
- Flickr and Webshots — a classic Web 2.0 case, Thomas Hawk, November 2005.
- Power failure, Joshua Schachter, December 2005.
Mercurytide is a forward thinking, dynamic, and innovative Internet applications development company. We are well-established with a proven track-record within the industry of attracting blue chip clients from around the world. We produce regular white papers on a variety of technology-orientated topics. For more details see the Mercurytide web site.