Cloud services vs. desktop apps: What fits your needs?

We all know the big 500 pound gorilla of the software-as-a -service world: Gmail. Google's cloud-based application has been capturing the attention (and the messages) of hundreds of millions of users since its 2004 beta launch. With 7 GB of storage space available for every user and the capability to be viewed from any browser on the planet, Gmail has defined what it means to be a successful cloud application.

But the really important question: is it the best messaging application?

For all the hoopla about the cloud, there haven't been a lot of comparisons between cloud apps like Gmail, Mint, and Pandora and their desktop equivalents like Thunderbird, Quicken, or iTunes -- except, of course, for the inevitable "cloud roolz, desktop sux" articles that dismissively sweep aside locally installed apps in favor for the cloud for the simplistic reason that they're cool and new.

But are cloud apps really better all of the time, just because they're cloud? Let's take a look at some popular cloud-based apps and their desktop counterparts, with the focus being to determine which app -- cloud or desktop -- is the better offering in its class.

Messaging

Let's just get this one out of the way right now. On the cloud, there's Gmail. With tight integration with calendaring, contacts, and other Google tools like Google Docs, this is a very hard app to beat. If you look at the entirety of the Google package, really, then it is impossible to beat. But, when looking at just the messaging features, the answer is not so clear cut.

Microsoft Outlook, for example, offers the best connectivity with Exchange servers and the growing install base of SharePoint servers out there. Despite the popularity of Gmail, there are still a lot of businesses that are leery about hosting their corporate data on outside servers. Messaging on local systems is much more attractive. Alternative servers like Open-Xchange and Alfresco can provide the same functionality as Exchange and SharePoint, so cost becomes even less of a factor.

Mozilla's Thunderbird is another very robust desktop client -- and, unlike Outlook, it can be used on Windows, OS X, and Linux. Thunderbird offers much of the same messaging functionality as Outlook and even Gmail, but for anything beyond that, there's a caveat: some tools must be added to a Thunderbird installation. For calendaring, for instance, users need to use either Lightning or Sunbird. The cost of Thunderbird -- free -- makes it very attractive, so it's a good option for home or small business users that access their messages from just a few set locations.

Enterprise users are probably going to be more comfortable with an in-house messaging solution, which means some form of non-cloud client/server arrangement. Home users, however, will be very well served by Gmail, especially if they expect any kind of mobility when accessing messages.

Productivity applications

In the old days, this would be easy: Microsoft Office. That's because no matter what tools were out there competing with any of the Office applications, it really all came down to file compatibility. Businesses, schools, and home users exclusively saved documents in .doc, .xls, or .ppt format, and so you would too, by golly.

But now the Open Document Format (ODF) is available, and even Office uses it, if somewhat begrudgingly; as a result, compatibility has become less of an issue when sharing files with others. It's not perfect yet, but it's definitely better. With that in mind, is Office still the better option?

In word processing, you might not want to go with Word. Creating documents is, honestly, not something you need a lot of bells and whistles to accomplish. OpenOffice.org (or LibreOffice) Writer has much of the same functionality as Word, and is available on multiple platforms. Google Docs is extremely limited in terms of word processing capabilities; its best feature is real-time collaboration. Writer is the best word processor for the right price: free.

Spreadsheets are another matter. Between Excel and Calc on the desktop, and Google Docs on the cloud, it's clear that Excel is still the champ in this category. With more functions, better analytical tools, and easier charting, none of the other spreadsheet apps come close.

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The cloud-based Prezi will give PowerPoint a run for its money.

When it comes to presentations, the cloud has a surprise dark horse entry: Prezi. Prezi enables the creation of multimedia presentations that go above and beyond the traditional slideshow format offered by PowerPoint, Presentation, and Google Docs. This is the one that the rest will have to beat in the coming days.

Financial Management

Managing your money is always something that we know we need to do, but never seems to have the time to do. Cloud-based apps in this category offer the convenience of being able to log in and handle finances wherever you are, which is one of the best reasons for using Mint.com (which Quicken Online merged with in 2009).

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Mint will keep your financial data in the cloud -- if you're comfortable with that

For personal finances, Mint.com is very much the best application to use, though if you're squeamish about using the cloud to handle your money, you might opt for Moneydance, a very solid app that runs on the big three desktop platforms.

Anyone with more complicated finances, such as investments or a small business they are trying to run, should stick with the old standby Quicken. Quicken has several flavors that fit a variety of situations and -- should even Quicken not prove enough -- can migrate to QuickBooks accounting software.

Graphics and photo editing

There are a lot of entries in this category, because frankly, managing pictures and images is one of the big reasons why people buy a home computer in the first place. Sorting them out takes a bit of time, because these apps vary widely in their capabilities and ease of use.

On the easy-to-use end of the spectrum, there is the cloud-based Picnik, which enables uses to upload their photos and edit them in creative ways using essentially push-button tools. Upgrade to the Premium edition, and you get more tools. Picnik is also nice because it integrates with existing image storage services like Picasa, Facebook, and Flickr.

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Picnik is a surprisingly powerful cloud-based image editor.

If you are more technically skilled, you can achieve the same effects (with somewhat more variety) with GIMP, a free desktop image editing application that can run on Windows, OS X, and Linux. GIMP is very robust, but let's not kid around here -- this Photoshop-like application has a steep learning curve. If you can master it, though, you will have much more creativity than Picnik offers, at a better price.

Creating Web sites

In the good old days, it was all about HTML. Now it's all Web 2.0, and you had better go big or go home if you have a Web site to create.

Desktop applications like Dreamweaver offer magnificent creative tools, but require a big investment in terms of both cash to buy them and time to learn how to use them. Dreamweaver is not a cheap way to go, and it doesn't solve the problem of finding a place to host your Web site once you've built it.

Robust content management systems like Drupal, Joomla, or WordPress use a modular approach to Web site creation, enabling users to put together the parts they need in smooth fashion. Additionally, many Web site hosting companies provide ready-made sites with these CMSes already installed: all you have to do is go in and customize the site with your content, images, and modules.

Google Sites is a free real-time site editor that lets you host sites on Google free of charge. It's a what-you-see-is-what-you-get tool, but it's very simplistic and a bit cumbersome to manage.

For ease of use and flexibility, WordPress is probably the best way to go for all but the most complicated web sites.

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