Call it the second Internet bubble, a Web 2.0 revolution or just a resurgence in really useful tools for busy end users -- Web applications are catching on quickly.
The advantages are clear for applications that work well on the Web: anytime and anywhere access to your data, good application speed over a broadband connection, automated backups and streamlined user interfaces that are far easier to use than the bloatware of yesteryear.
Well-known services such as Plaxo.com and Basecamp.com offer to mobile users the added benefit of being able to tap into their contacts or projects from a smart phone.
One of the most compelling reasons to use applications on the Web is that they are almost all free -- at least for now.
Here are a few new -- or at least lesser-known -- Web sites that can serve as good replacements for equivalent desktop software. In this roundup, I'll cover the features that make each one noteworthy and offer a few ideas for other candidates worth exploring.
Gliffy is a flowchart and diagram application that works exactly like Microsoft Visio. To create a flowchart, you just drag icons onto the document area. You can then use arrows and other pointers to create the flow chart.
Like many full-blown Web apps, Gliffy allows you to collaborate with other users by sharing your flowchart in a public workspace. Brainstorming sessions, marketing demos or just a clear plan on how to implement a hardware or software rollout in a large company become quick and easy -- there's no desktop client to install or site registration to think about.
Although Gliffy lacks the pizzazz of a commercial application -- some of the icons for creating a networking flowchart, for example, look too simplistic -- the Web application ran without any problems in both IE7 and Firefox. It does lack a way to quickly align objects or rotate them in set increments using a modifier key. As with most Web apps, Gliffy stores your diagrams automatically and introduces new features without requiring an upgrade.
Priscila Melendez, a senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, is a Gliffy user. "I used Gliffy when working on a marketing effort to share network security diagrams with other team members who were off-site," Melendez said. "The ability to share the images created and then to be able to save and use them in publications and documents makes this a great collaboration tool. I believe the way diagrams can be generated and shared is the greatest asset, especially since more companies are starting to open up to telecommuting."
Anyone who relies heavily on a word processor for business communication, project documentation or even just quick cover letters probably already knows the features they like best. For me, one feature that is obviously missing from Web word processors -- including ZoHo Writer and Google Documents -- is the inline spell checker.
ThinkFree, billed as "the best online office on earth," distinguishes itself by offering a spell checker -- and it even has custom dictionaries. When you misspell a word, ThinkFree adds a red underline that you can click on to select the correct spelling. It might seem trivial, but since this feature is missing from many other online word processors, it's a definite plus.
Of course, ThinkFree Office offers a bevy of additional features: 1GB of storage for documents, Microsoft Office read-and-write support, a global search for both public and private documents and two options for word processing -- a quick edit function with a limited (but more intuitive) feature set, and a power edit mode with more advanced functions.
ThinkFree supports word processing, spreadsheets and online presentations. It uses Java, which means it should support multiple browsers, but at press time it didn't work with the latest version of Firefox 2. In Internet Explorer 7, all three beta apps worked without any crashes.
One of the nagging problems of Web e-mail is that there is no progress indicator that shows you when a large attachment is transferring to the recipient. In Microsoft Live Mail and Gmail, you just wait until you return to the in-box. Even in Microsoft Outlook, the progress bar isn't terribly accurate about how long it will take to send a large attachment. And it's also a guessing game as to whether the recipient can receive a large file or not.
One solution to this problem is YouSendIt. The free version allows you to send a 100MB file to any recipient -- neither the sender nor receiver has to register for an account. What I like about YouSendIt more than other options such as DropSend.com and MailBigFile.com is that it actually works. I tested about 10 files, each one to a different recipient, and they all worked flawlessly. Other services tend to stall or lose track of the upload.
YouSendIt offers scaled membership levels for different transfer capabilities. The $4.99-per-month Plus version, for example, can send attachments up to 2GB in size. There's also an enterprise-level version with extremely high bandwidth so that, once you transmit the file, it will become available as a fast download for other corporate users.