Five free Web apps we can't live without

From collaboration tools to database apps and more, these next-gen Web applications keep the Computerworld newsroom humming.

The current explosion of AJAX-powered Web sites has helped spawn countless next-generation Web apps offering everything from simple to-do lists to complex project management, not to mention the ability to share all kinds of things -- documents, calendar listings, photos, video and more.

But with so many sites out there and new ones cropping up almost daily, who's got time to try them all? Playing with dozens of Web apps to find ones you like can sort of defeat the purpose of many of these services: to boost your productivity.

Fortunately for you, we've already done a lot of this work. In the collaborative Web 2.0 spirit, we're sharing some of the favorite tools we use here at Computerworld. Even with their occasional flaws, we just can't stop using them.

From a simple to-do list to a robust drag-and-drop database builder, here are the ones we've found to be borderline addictive.

The A-list

Ta-da List

Any application has to balance the urge to offer lots of functionality with the need for an easy-to-use interface. But that's especially true for Web-based apps, where software bloat can be especially annoying because of slow connections and server wait times, and where users expect to point and click without having to read a 100-page manual first.

You'd be hard pressed to find a more streamlined, simple service than Ta-da List, which bills itself as "the Web's easiest to-do list tool." After opening an account, click "create a new list," name it, type in a task and click "add this item." Add more items by typing them in. Order the items by clicking on "reorder" and dragging items up or down.

Done rearranging? Click "I'm done reordering." When a task is completed, click the box next to it to move it down to the bottom. Edit or delete items (or the list itself) by selecting the edit link.

That's pretty much it. There are no categories, no tags, no priority numbers. I typically use it when I've got a couple of different things in the works that I want to make sure I remember. It's simple, elegant and very quick -- easy enough to replace jotting down a list on a piece of paper, but with a cool AJAX interface.

And unlike a paper list, my Ta-da list is available anywhere I can get online; I can't misplace it. I can also share it with others, either for viewing only or as a group collaborative list. While there are Google ads on the site, they're fairly innocuous and don't feel intrusive while I'm using my list.

Ta-da List was created by 37signals, the company best known for the Basecamp project management service that spawned David Heinemeier Hansson's open-source Ruby on Rails project. Hansson is adamant about keeping all his software lean, and nowhere is that more true than Ta-da List.

If you must have more functionality in a to-do list, PCWorld recommends RememberTheMilk as a reinvented to-do list "in a snazzy interface that lets you make lists in configurable categories, all laid out on the front page as tabs." I agree that "adding to-dos is easy, though adding deadlines, notes and time estimates is unintuitive." Overall, RememberTheMilk seems like a bit too much work for what I'd get out of it, but for those who place a higher value on functionality than on elegance and simplicity, it's worth a look.

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Sharon Machlis

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