Web-based computing has these advantages: It doesn't matter what kind of computer you use. Mac, Windows, Linux, Ubuntu -- they're all the same. It doesn't matter whose computer you're using, or where. You don't have to drag hard drives or USB sticks or even computers around with you, or copy files between a desktop and a laptop machine to keep them up to date. You just sit down wherever you get a web connection and dig in. Everything you need is stored in the internet "cloud."
(For the Atlantic's premonition of such cloud computing 12 years ago, check here, and after the jump.)
Web-based computing has a small disadvantage: working with an online program like, say, Writely (now Google Docs) is slower than using one based on your own machine, since info must constantly go back and forth from a remote server.
It also has a huge disadvantage: when you're off line, you're out of luck. You can't get at your web-based mail, you can't get at your online calendar or contact list or documents, you can't do very much. Traveling in China, I spend a lot of time off-line, so for me this is a deal-breaker.
All of which is why, to me, the news that Google Calendar will sync with Microsoft Outlook is big news indeed.
Easy synchronization is a crucial step toward making web-based applications practical. You can work when you're away from the internet, and then what you've done offline can be matched up with what you've stored in the internet cloud. Easy syncing was a key to the Palm Pilot's and the Blackberry's acceptance. You entered information during the day, you stuck the device in its cradle when you got to your computer, and -- presto! -- everything matched up.
I now use a homemade kind of syncing for email. I send and receive mainly with Gmail accounts, but I collect and compose that mail through Outlook, which (unlike the normal Gmail web interface) lets me read or search through messages and write answers when I'm on a train or plane or anywhere else with no connection.
This new Outlook sync utility has similar potential. Until now I've tediously double-entered calendar info -- once on Outlook, where I can sync it to my Blackberry, and then again on Google Calendar, where I can get it from any computer and share it with my family. Now, based on two days' successful experimentation, I can enter or change an appointment either place and have it automatically transferred to the other.
In the long run, full embrace of "cloud computing" will require some kind of convenient always/everywhere internet access different from what we have now. But this is an interesting step.
Trip down memory lane dept: The passage below is from my article twelve years ago about the embryonic precursor to "cloud"-based online applications like Google Calendar. Note the weird combo of prehistoric-seeming details -- dialup telephone lines as the main way of getting to the internet! - with certain constants. Eric Schmidt, whom I quoted about Java when he was Chief Technology Officer at Sun, is of course now a main advocate of the cloud approach in his role as Google CEO. Perhaps the most pathetic aspect of this article is its speculation about how useful the internet might someday be ... if there were only a way to find the information you were looking for.
...This vision of telephone-like computers, busily touted by Sun representatives since late last year, might never come true. In the short term it faces the ugly reality that existing Internet phone connections are just too slow and overtaxed to handle the high-capacity traffic a Javaed world would require. When I visited Sun's headquarters last fall and watched a Java demonstration by Eric Schmidt, the chief technology officer, an embarrassing slowdown kept the demo from loading at all. Even Sun's internal lines, it seemed, were congested, because end-of-quarter financial data were being passed around....
This argument will play out over the next few years, while we wait for phone lines to become fast enough to give Java a serious trial. In the meantime, the idea behind Java -- that the Internet, which we cannot see or really imagine, will take over functions now performed on the computer -- applies to the part of computing that has always been the most interesting and will become increasingly valuable. This is the ability to find information that we actually want.