Run applications off the Web
by Liane Gouthro
(IDG) -- Some day, you'll run your word processor off a Web server. At least, that's what both Sun Microsystems and Microsoft say. And in late August, Sun put its money where its mouth is by announcing concrete plans to make Web-based applications available.
Long known as a server vendor, Sun ventured into the software market earlier this year by purchasing Star Division, which makes the StarOffice desktop suite. The company's August announcement detailed plans to offer this suite as a Web-based application. Not to be outdone, Microsoft promptly announced it will deliver Microsoft Office in a similar configuration.
So, does it make sense to replace your trusty PC applications with Web-based versions? Neither Microsoft nor Sun is yet delivering its suite this way. But thinter.net, an application service provider for small businesses, hosts StarOffice free for subscribers. I took a look to find out if it's practical to work the Web this way.
Behind the Web curtains
You must be a thinter.net subscriber to access the StarOffice suite through its site. I set up my account by going through many of the same steps its clients follow. The demo client version I downloaded, which is thinter.net's standard software, runs with Citrix's Megaframe software on thinter.net's NT Web server. The Citrix software essentially runs "instances" of each application in the server's memory.
By running these separate instances, the Citrix Megaframe creates virtual desktops for each user. The server runs separate copies of the software, so users have their own private environments. With one download, you can install this right on your machine.
When I log onto thinter.net, I find my very own virtual Windows NT desktop. The thinter.net version looks remarkably like my regular old desktop, except that the taskbar is at the top of the screen. The start menu appears in the top left corner, and minimized programs shrink to a bar on the top of the screen.
A StarOffice shortcut on the desktop could sometimes only be opened with a triple click. Occasionally a double click would suffice. (Thinter.net confirms this behavior.)
When StarOffice opens, I see another desktop -- the third one in the sequence, which is a bit confusing. (When you open StarOffice, instead of seeing a document, you get another view of the thinter.net desktop -- but rearranged inside a StarOffice frame.)
The StarOffice Suite is more tightly integrated than Microsoft Office programs, and this key difference could account for this third desktop. Rather than working in Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, with StarOffice I work all of its applications at once. In the StarOffice Desktop, the file menu offers me the choice of creating a new text document, a new spreadsheet, a new presentation, or a new drawing. I don't have to open a new program to create a different type of document.
Initially I found this an unnecessary and somewhat confusing extra step. Once I became more familiar with the program, I found that this integration actually simplified the program for me. This third desktop didn't alter the appearance of the thinter.net virtual desktop or my actual PC desktop in any way.
Other than that notable exception, the StarOffice program looked and felt very similar to Microsoft Office. StarOffice is compatible with Microsoft. The program lets you save documents in Microsoft's file formats, which worked reasonably well in my very limited tests.
Share and share alike -- safely
Thinter.net's collaboration feature lets two or more users share a desktop. You can let another thinter.net user "shadow" your session, meaning they can see your desktop. Both users can control the mouse and the keyboard, and both see the same results. This way, two users can work together on one document.
The shadowing may seem like a nifty feature, but how often do you want to watch what someone else is typing? Sure, we could talk on the phone as we look at the document and revise it live, but wouldn't it be just as easy, and take less time, to send and revise documents?
StarOffice offers security precautions, especially when a colleague wants to shadow your session. You must grant them permission to watch. You can give them full access to your local files, read-only access, or deny access altogether.
StarOffice provides similar security precautions when you try to switch files between your thinter.net desktop and your physical machine.
For more typical collaboration and file-sharing, you can use the service as a file server. You can define a group, and StarOffice assigns a virtual drive where the group can access files.
But saving files can be confusing. Initially when I used the "save as" function, I had trouble discerning exactly where the file was being stored. The names of the folders and drives were confusing, and I had trouble navigating up to the desktop level to find my whereabouts.
Faster is better
One of the main oddities of running applications off of the Internet is the speed. I noticed a delay as I was typing. In fact, I could type an entire sentence without seeing any screen response, and then watch the text appear.
I tested the application on a shared 38.4-kbps connection, which is not ideal, and probably influenced the speed. But this speed is probably no worse and maybe much better than what many of thinter.net's target customers have.
"For speed of connection, most users find that a 56-kbps connection performs well for a single user," says Chuck Moreland, president of thinter.net. "Faster connections do provide a crisper response, and improve performance for users that do a lot of uploading and downloading of files," he says.
In the long run, running applications this way may make sense for small businesses. Rather than spending money on networking equipment and an information systems staff, a small company can use the Web to do its networking. Because thinter.net hosts all the applications, it also handles all the technical issues.
The average user, though, may have second thoughts. The differences between running off the Web and running off your hard drive remind me of the differences in using my free Web-based e-mail versus the e-mail client on my desktop. On the Web, things may take a little longer, it may be a little tougher to find your way around, and things may not be as neat as you like.
But if it's free, it's well worth a look.
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