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Monday, 09 June 2008 13:17

Desktop software: not green, not lean and mighty unclean

An alternative title for this article was polluting the world, one program at a time but that's not fair. There's plenty of good software being developed that isn't a wasteful source of greenhouse gases, it just generally doesn't sit on the desktop anymore.

In a previous article, I focused on the fact that most of us have been cajoled into buying personal computers that are way too powerful for our needs and by extension too power hungry. However, the hardware makers are by no means the only culpable parties in this game.

There's no prizes for guessing which companies -and one in particular - I'm talking about, so I won't even bother to name them. However, Microsoft (oops!) can't really be blamed for its role in the proliferation of desktop software.

After all, the Internet has only been mainstream since 1994. And it has only been in the past two or three years that software as a service (SaaS) applications have been made practical by the increasing spread of broadband.

Prior to Web 2.0, desktop software on fat clients was the only practical way most of us could get our work done.

It could be argued that much of the desktop software (especially the office productivity stuff) produced between 1995 and 2005 was redundant and simply designed to force us to spend money on new hardware and software. But hey, that's the business that supported us. So what's the problem with desktop software now? Please read on to page 2

In these days of environmental consciousness, claiming to be green while producing desktop software that requires copious amounts of local computer resources to run is a bit rich.

I hate to keep bringing myself up as an example but I'm the best one I know.

Like many other desktop computer users I know, in the past couple of years I have grown increasingly frustrated with my desktop systems.

I was continually being told what an improvement the next operating system Vista would be. I was told how much more secure it would be, how much more stable, how elegant the new interface was with its Aero glass windows.

I was also told how I needed Office 2007 because it was 10 years ahead of what I was already using. That one came directly from the horse's mouth at Redmond!

Of course, in order to take advantage of all this new software, I would need a Vista compliant computer. I was told that Vista loves memory - the more the better. It also loves lots of processing power, preferably with a dedicated graphics processor.

So, hardware being relatively cheap these days, I invested in a desktop monster with a Core 2 Duo 2.4GHz, 4GB RAM and Nvidia GeForce 8500 GT GPU 256MB DDR2. It has so many fans, it would keep me up at night if I didn't power it down. So problem fixed? Please read on to page 3

Anyway I got my Microsoft supplied copy of Vista Ultimate loaded, also loaded my Microsoft supplied copy of Office 2007 Ultimate and for a few months everything seemed to go smoothly.

It wasn't lightning fast. Outlook still often took minutes to download the hundreds of emails I get every day. Word still took a few seconds to load. My latest security software seemed to work OK without slowing things down too much. It was not ideal but acceptable. I needed a monster computer to get acceptable performance from the latest software but I needed a reliable system so I wore the overhead.

After a few months, however, I started to get frustrated. I had a computer that was almost a gamer's box but it was still making me wait for my emails to download and I was still occasionally pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete to cancel a process that had stalled the system.

I had heard about how cloud computing could free users from the constraints of the desktop so I decided to give it a try.

Since Google seemed to have the most accessible free email, calendar and online word processing package available I opened a Gmail account. That also gave me access to Google Calendar and Google Docs.

From the outset I have to say that not one of the Google online packages is as feature rich or as elegant as the MS Office counterpart. However, I decided to stick with them and give them a fair trial. So were they good enough? Please read on to page 4

Within days, I discovered to my amazement that I had simplified my computing life by an order of magnitude.

All my business and personal emails were being forwarded to my Gmail account and they were instantly there - no downloading. OK the interface isn't as good as Outlook and it's not as easy to search but it works and it doesn't keep me waiting.

Google Calendar is also very functional. Just as good for me as its Outlook equivalent.

The Google Docs word processor is nowhere near as powerful or feature rich as MS Office (or but it's good enough for me - and I use a word processor all day nearly every day. As far as tracking changes are concerned, it keeps a complete revision list of all versions of a document - great for collaboration.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is not about how good or otherwise the Google service apps are. The point is that since I've been using and storing my data in them, I've become machine and operating system independent. And because of that, I no longer need my big mother of a number cruncher.

In fact my number cruncher had a hardware failure two weeks ago and I haven't even bothered to get it fixed. When the big box failed, I just turned on my laptop logged into Gmail and continued working.

The curious thing is that working on my much less powerful laptop, I haven't noticed any degradation in system performance. The only desktop applications I run are Firefox and Skype, although I do have a copy of Office 2007.

Now I plan to use my laptop as my main computer and buy a small cheap sub-notebook (a netbook) with some sort of cut-down Linux like Ubuntu Remix for travelling.

Now what should I do with my big number cruncher? I don't play PC games so I suppose I could get it fixed and sell it at a computer swap meet. I could use it as a test machine. However, with all the power that this thing chews up perhaps the environmentally responsible thing to do would be to have it recycled for parts.

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Stan Beer

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Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 35 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.

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