Cloud computing is well and good, but it can't beat the desktop computer.

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April 3 2008 6:57 AM

Cloudy Judgment

Web-based applications are all well and good, but there's still no beating the desktop computer.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

I had just finished a Photoshop how-to for Wired when the software's maker announced a new free online version, Photoshop Express. Great, I thought: Instead of telling readers to spend 100 bucks, I can point them to the free, no-installation-required version. After a few minutes of noodling, though, it was clear that Photoshop Express couldn't perform the basic vacation-shot-enhancement tricks I'd written up. Neither can Picnik or Phixr, two other popular Web-based photo editors. As of yet, no Web-based photo manipulation tool is even as sophisticated as Photoshop Elements 5, the previous PC edition. Buy a copy on eBay for $40—you'll thank me the next time your Web connection conks out.

Photoshop Express is just one small example. There's now a flood of Web-based applications that serve as simplified—read: limited—versions of popular desktop software. Google Docs, the in-your-browser competitor to Microsoft Office that I gushed about a year ago, is probably the best example. Google just announced that its word processor, spreadsheet, and slide-show tools will soon let you keep working without a live network connection. That will remove their biggest shortcoming. Still, the more time I spend using Web-based apps like Google Docs, the more I appreciate my desktop computer.

I used to be a network-computing zealot. I spent five years in the 1980s as a programmer and administrator for MIT's Project Athena, an ambitious attempt to network the school's milewide campus. Plunk yourself in front of any Athena computer, type in your password, and all your stuff would be instantly available, just as if you'd plugged in a giant hard disk. I put in another five years at NCD, a Silicon Valley startup that tried to capitalize on some of Athena's principles.

I thought that people who kept files on their desktops, and spent their days installing and upgrading application software, were idiots. Why not just have one copy of everything—applications, files, etc.—on the network, let the IT guys back it up for you, and connect to it from wherever you are? That's what Google Docs does, finally. But now that my youthful efforts have come to fruition, I've sworn off my the-network-is-the-computer evangelism for several good reasons.

First, networks are flaky. Part of what makes the Internet so powerful is that, unlike an old analog phone line, it doesn't have to maintain a live, nonstop, real-time connection. As long as your mail gets transferred and Web pages download within a reasonable amount of time, you don't notice if your connection briefly goes down once in a while. If you're using that connection to edit photos, you do notice. One office network I use is shared by a few software engineers who regularly move gigabytes of data among servers. I can tell when they're at it, because my Photoshop Express session abruptly hangs between operations for a few seconds.

Second, today's network apps run inside another application—your Web browser. That makes them slower, and it limits the possibilities for the apps' user interface. The desktop version of Photoshop has a wonderful feature called the Magnetic Lasso that automatically finds the outline of a face as I drag the mouse roughly near its edges. I can wave my mouse sloppily around a human form, and the Magnetic Lasso will meticulously outline the human silhouette in my picture. That lets me punch up the color of a tourist in a photo or tone down ugly objects in the background. Photoshop Express will only let me adjust the entire photo at once.

Google Docs is similarly crippled. Its slide-show editor has the same functionality of an early-1990s version of Microsoft PowerPoint and has just as many bugs in the way it formats text. I recently prepared a presentation for sharing online and spent more time fixing screwy indentation and mismatched font sizes than I did writing the words. Honestly, I don't know whether these are limitations on a browser interface or just plain bugs in Google's code. But that's a general problem with Web-based apps: There's a lower bar for perfection, probably because we're still in the "Yay! It works in your browser!" phase. Call me crazy, but I'll keep using PowerPoint until the browser-based solution is better than the one we've already got.

The people who build browsers need to do a better job, too, if they expect me to do all my work inside one. Don't even get me started on the daily hell wherein I hit a Web site that locks up Firefox, killing all of my browser windows. If my desktop e-mail crashes, it doesn't shut down my photo editor. But when one browser-based app goes, they all go. Several times a week, I hit Technorati to do a search and end up with Google Docs, Photoshop Express, and the rest of Web 2.0 stuck frozen on my screen. Even Microsoft Word doesn't crash that often anymore.

In theory, Web-based apps—also known as "software as a service" or, less precisely, "cloud computing"—are the future of computers. That ignores the huge progress in personal computers that sit on your desktop, in your lap, or in your pocket. Multi-core processors, touch screens, motion sensors—all major computing advances, none of which are happening in the cloud. Consider the iPhone, a huge hit because of the things it does right there in your hand. It's a sharp-eyed camera with a killer photo-album tool you flip through with your fingertips, and it's a big music and video library you can play anywhere. You can't run applications like that over a network, and you won't be able to for a long time.

I think there's a market for free, Web-based apps that offer basic features. Knock yourselves out, dilettantes. For me, it'll be years before Photoshop Express can become powerful enough to replace my desktop version, or before Google Docs gets me to uninstall Microsoft Office. I'm not sure I want to. One of the nice things about Word and Photoshop is that once I fire them up and start working, I can forget all about the Internet for a few hours. Sometimes, my PC and I just want to be alone.

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