The Webtop
Software that was once the bailiwick of desktop computing is now going online. In fact, these web-based applications may someday entirely replace your desktop suite.
By Erick Schonfeld, Om Malik and Michael V. Copeland

(Business 2.0) - It's been a long time--all the way back to the dawn of desktop computing in the early 1980s--since software coders have had as much fun as they're having right now. But today, browser-based applications are where the action is. A killer app no longer requires hundreds of drones slaving away on millions of lines of code. Three or four engineers and a steady supply of Red Bull is all it takes to rapidly turn a midnight brainstorm into a website so hot it melts the servers.

What has changed is the way today's Web-based apps can run almost as seamlessly as programs used on the desktop, with embedded audio, video, and drag-and-drop ease of use. Behind this Web-desktop fusion are technologies like Ajax (asynchronous JavaScript and XML), Macromedia's Flash, and Ruby on Rails. We'll spare you the technical details; suffice it to say that these technologies are giving rise to a new webtop that may one day replace your suite of desktop applications.

Start with Writely, a free online word processor that anyone who knows how to use Microsoft Word will figure out in a few clicks. Then add Zimbra, which is taking a swipe at Microsoft Outlook with an online e-mail application that has all the latest Ajax tricks built in. Glide a mouse over a message that includes a date, and your calendar for that day pops up. Move it over a website address, and an image of the page appears. For an online spreadsheet, try Tracker, the latest release from JotSpot (better known for its group-editing "wiki" software). Tracker becomes an interactive website open to viewing or changing by the people you invite. Users also will soon be able to subscribe to a particular spreadsheet row (say, "Sales in China") via an RSS feed. All of these programs link to myriad open APIs--advanced program interfaces that serve as building blocks for new applications--and data on the Web from Amazon (Research), Google (Research), and others. Thus can the information on your desktop be fused with the entire Web through a powerful and increasingly invisible bridge between the two.

Google, Microsof (Research)t, and Yahoo (Research) are energetically trying to crash this party. Microsoft recently launched Windows Live, a personal online command center for e-mail, RSS feeds, and other content, and is preparing to follow up soon with Office Live, a website-hosting and online project-management service that taps into the existing Office desktop programs.

THE WEBTOP

Company: JotSpot (Palo Alto)

What It Is: Wikis and online spreadsheets

Next Net Bona Fides: A pioneer of Web collaboration apps, a.k.a. wikis, it has unveiled its new Tracker application, which provides a powerful, highly collaborative online spreadsheet.

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Company: 30Boxes (San Francisco)

What it is: Online calendar

Next Net Bona Fides: This Web-based software allows families and groups to create private social networks, organize events, track schedules, and share photos; it may soon allow you to save phone numbers as hyperlinks and make calls by simply clicking on a link.

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Company: 37Signals (Chicago)

What It Is: Online project management

Next Net Bona Fides: Its Basecamp app, elegant and inexpensive, enables the creation, sharing, and tracking of to-do lists, files, performance milestones, and other key project metrics; related app Backpack, recently released, is a powerful online organizer for individuals.

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Company: Writely (Portola Valley, CA)

What It Is: Online word processing

Next Net Bona Fides: It enables online creation of documents, opens them to collaboration by anyone anywhere, and simplifies publishing the end result on a website as a blog entry.

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Company: Zimbra (San Mateo, CA)

What It Is: Online e-mail

Next Net Bona Fides: Taking aim at Microsoft Outlook, its Ajax-based application can, among other things, bring up your calendar for any date your mouse encounters, launch Skype for any phone number, or retrieve a Google map for any address.

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INCUMBENT TO WATCH

Microsoft. By rolling out Windows Live, Office Live, and other Next Net-centric software, it hopes to grab a dominant--if not monopolistic--share of the webtop, which Bill Gates regards as a crucial strategic priority. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.