There are many advantages to using applications hosted on the internet, in the ‘cloud’, rather than traditional software programs. They are available anywhere there is an internet connection, they are often free, and they are accessed only when needed. Organizations with limited resources, or limited hard disk space, no longer need to buy and install software that will be seldom used. Since these applications are available through a web browser, they work regardless of the computer’s operating system, and many can be used offline.
Cloud Computing enables anyone to contribute and share information. You can invite colleagues and partner organizations to collaborate in compiling and editing documents. In some cases, a group of people can work on a document at the same time while the application synchronizes the data across all the users’ computers. The following are just a few examples of the new generation of web-based applications.
For word processing, spreadsheets and presentations
Sign up for a Google Docs account with your email address and a password. You can then upload a file stored on your computer or open a new document and work in the browser.
Sharing: Invite others to view and edit the document either while you are working on it, or from the homepage, which gives an overview of all your files. Click ‘share’ and add the email addresses of the people with whom you want to collaborate. You can also set the ‘permissions’ to allow people to edit, view, or invite others to collaborate. Google Docs can also provide a web address if you want to make the document public.
You may publish the document as a web page, send it as an email attachment or, from the homepage, ‘export’ it to your hard drive as an html, pdf, Word or plain text document. It is also possible to export a presentation as a PowerPoint file (ppt) and spreadsheets as xml files.
Offline: It is possible to work offline with Google Docs when using the Chrome browser or, if you use another browser, click ‘offline’ in the top right-hand corner of the screen. This will install the Google Gears application plus all the documents onto your computer. Any changes you make offline are synchronized when you reconnect to the internet.
For word processing, spreadsheets and presentations
You can sign up for a free Zoho Docs account, which has a 1 gigabyte data limit (more space is available for US$3 per month).
Sharing: Other people sharing your account must also sign up for a Zoho account, but the process is very simple. One advantage of Zoho is that several people can edit a document at the same time (these sections are labelled ‘read only’ while they are working). You can also chat in real time with other members who are logged on.
Zoho Docs works in a very similar way to Google Docs; click ‘open’ or ‘new’ to open a document, but then click ‘edit’ to start working on it and save to the same formats and Google Docs.
Offline: The offline mode is available only for Zoho writer, the word processing application, which also makes use of Google Gears, which you have to download and install on your computer.
For word processing and storage
Sign up for Swirrl with your email address, and choose a unique web address for your documents (e.g. swirrl.com/yourname). When you receive a ‘welcome’ email, follow the link and add your screen name that others in your group will see, and your real name (which only the administrators will see) then choose a password.
Start a new document by clicking ‘make a new item’, add a name and click ‘create’. Note that you can only edit text documents in Swirrl. You can also upload a document from your computer by clicking ‘upload a file’. Give the file a name, click the browse button, and upload it from your computer. You can store up to 20 MB with the free package.
Sharing: When logged onto the Swirrl homepage, click on ‘manage users’, then ‘invite new users’ and enter the email addresses of anyone you would like to share the file with. They will then be sent an email with instructions on how to access your file. Your colleagues can edit online any of the text documents you create in Swirrl and can communicate via ‘announcements’.
Offline: Documents created in Swirrl can be downloaded, but any uploaded files can be edited only after downloading them.
Maneno (‘words’ in Swahili) is a new blogging platform developed for bloggers in Africa. The platform is quick to load, even on slow connections. It is currently available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Kiswahili. Other African languages will be added soon.
Register online, then login, go to the admin section and click the ‘write a new article’ button at the top right to start blogging.
Sharing: Maneno is an ideal application if more than one person will contribute to the blog. In fact, you don’t even need your own blog but can join and contribute to any one of the established blogging networks, including the popular Community Content and BarCamp Africa.
Offline: If you have a slow internet connection you can download and install a small application that allows you to write blog posts while offline, ready to be published when you reconnect to the internet. www.maneno.org
There are several online photo and video editing applications, but to upload and work on the material you will need a fast broadband connection.
With this free application you can edit, resize, enhance and add effects to digital photos. There is no need to register – simply click the button ‘jump right in’ on the homepage. Go to ‘file’ to ‘open’ an image on your computer; start a ‘new’ file; or ‘capture’ a photo directly from a webcam.
Sharing: Registering with Splashup lets you open and save photos to/from Flickr, Facebook, Picasa, and other photo-sharing sites, or from any web address, or store them on your Splashup account.
Offline: By downloading Splashup Light, a small program with fewer editing options, you can also work on your photos offline.
Aviary offers a full range of image editing tools, and allows you to make screenshots. Type http://aviary.com before a web address (e.g. http://aviary.com/http://ictupdate.cta.int) and the page loads with a selection of Aviary’s editing tools so that you can select and save a photo of the site.
A video editing application that is still in an early beta stage of development, JayCut offers unlimited data upload with comprehensive, easy to use editing tools. You can also save completed videos directly to Facebook and MySpace.
A word of caution
While web-based applications have their advantages there are also some important disadvantages. They can, for example, take up more bandwidth than a desktop program. It is often quicker, and less expensive, to download your emails using a program like Thunderbird, rather than accessing them via Gmail or Yahoo Mail.
But the most obvious drawback is that if your data is stored online you will not be able to access it when offline. You may have a reliable internet service provider who offers a fast broadband connection 24 hours a day, but even the most dependable services can break down from time to time.
Similarly, you have no problem with your internet connection, but the company storing your data may have maintenance or server problems, and could be temporarily or even permanently offline. This has already happened with the social bookmarking sites Furl and ma.gnolia. Furl offered users up to 5 GB of storage space, but many of them lost data when the company was taken over by a rival, while a data corruption problem in 2009 meant that many users lost files. Similarly, you have no problem with your internet connection, but the company storing your data may have maintenance or server problems, and could be temporarily or even permanently offline. This has already happened with the social bookmarking sites Furl and ma.gnolia. Furl offered users up to 5 GB of storage space, but many of them lost data when the company was taken over by a rival, while a data corruption problem in 2009 meant that many users lost files.
This website gives a comprehensive list of web 2.0 tools, grouped according to purpose, e.g. collaboration, e-learning, business or management, with summaries of each one.