While the debate of Windows v. Mac v. Linux rages on, at times rising to a roar in certain circles, I meekly raise my hand and offer a newly emerging fourth choice: none of these operating systems really matter anymore.
Why not? Because for writers like me, and for many others, all the software and storage space you really need is now online. All that matters is that you have your browser — and at the risk of sparking another flame war, I recommend Firefox.
Need a word processor, spreadsheet, photo program, or really most anything useful? Old-fashioned desktop applications aren’t necessary anymore, for the most part. You can fire up your browser on any computer, and given a decent internet connection, you’ve got your entire OS and hard drive right there, from anywhere you log in.
Now, before people start chiming in with “But I need X Application in order to do my work!” I have a disclaimer: my needs are relatively simple, so you may not be able to do what I’ve done. But I’ve intentionally simplified my needs, and for many people, this simplification can not only work, but be better than what’s offered on the desktop.
Here’s my Firefox OS, with an intentionally heavy reliance on the Google suite of software:
- Word processor. I use Google Docs & Spreadsheets. I used its predecessor, Writely, in the past, and it works well. I’ve never been a fan of the bloated MS Word … until recently, I used the much smaller and faster open-source word processor, AbiWord. But when I would forget to email myself a text file from work to home, I cursed myself and made the switch to Google Docs. I haven’t regretted it yet.
- Spreadsheet. Again, Google Docs & Spreadsheets. It isn’t as feature-rich as Excel or OpenOffice yet, but it does the job for most of my needs. In fact, it’s rare that I ever need anything more, and I suspect that’s the case for most people. And I expect the software to improve over time.
- Email. This is a no-brainer. Gmail, all the time. It’s so much better than desktop email apps, and better than its competing webmail apps too. Fast, easy to use, powerful searches and features … enough can’t be said about Gmail. It’s my No. 1 app for work and personal use.
- Feed reader. I’ve tried a lot of blog readers, including some good desktop and online readers. But Google Reader is by far the most efficient. I read it 2-3 times a day, and crank through my feeds. I can get through 100+ posts a day very quickly.
- Blogging software. For my main blog at Zen Habits, I’ve tried various software, but so far the best for my needs is WordPress. It has everything I need, and is very extensible with lots of great plugins.
- Photo software. One of the biggest reasons I need a hard drive is for all my photos, at work and home. I’ve solved that with Picasa Web Albums — another Google solution. I tried Flickr, but their free account is too flimsy, and Picasa just works better. Plus, if you like their great desktop software, it’s so perfectly integrated. I just uploaded all my thousands of photos from home, and it’s nicely organized online.
- Hard drive. What do you need a hard drive for? Besides the space needed to run your system, and software such as your browser, we use hard drives for file storage — for our word processing and spreadsheet documents, photos, music files, PDFs, etc. Well, for the most part, all my files are now saved online. Between Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Gmail, and Picasa, everything I save is stored on the internet. The one thing I haven’t found a perfect solution for is mp3s, but I haven’t been using those much, and I’m sure a solution will turn up soon (let me know in the comments!). Another great solution is online storage such as Box.net, MediaMax (25 GB for free!), Gmail Drive and the like.
- File management. The main reason for an OS is to manage your files. Well, since all my files are online, that’s now a moot point. How do I manage my files now? Well, as I use mostly Google software, I use Google’s philosophy: tag and archive everything, and use the tags or Google’s fast and powerful searches to find anything you need. This takes a bit of an adjustment on the user’s part, trusting this new paradigm to work, but trust me, it’s much better than filing stuff in folders. You save a heck of a lot of time filing and finding stuff. It’s not hierarchical, so that’s difficult for many people — but it works.
- Backup system. One of the big problems with a hard drive is the very real possibility that it will crash sometime during its lifetime. And unless you’ve been good at backing up your files, you will lose that data. With all my files saved online, there’s no need to back up these files, which can be time-consuming and troublesome. Good news: most of these services do a good job of backing up your data for you.
- Calendar. For its ease-of-use and simplicity, Google Calendar (of course). It doesn’t have all the functionality of certain desktop calendar programs, but it works great for me.
- Bringing it all together. I use a lot of Google apps, but Google’s main problem (for me) so far is that it doesn’t integrate these services well. Well, enter another Google solution: the Google Personalize Homepage. It’s now my home page. But I don’t use it like many others do, with all kinds of fun and distracting widgets, or to read all my blogs. No, I just have all my Google services on this page for easy access, along with quick bookmarks for all the other stuff I use for work and for my blogging, and some stickies for taking quick notes. One page to rule them all.
- Miscellaneous. I’m a fan of GTD, so I use Tracks for my to-do lists. I use other online software, such as Backpack for keeping other lists, but the ones above are the main apps. I also use AutoHotkey to quickly bring up the pages I use a lot, like Gmail, my to-do lists, my story ideas file, and the like, as well as to type my different signatures and other shortcuts.
- Firefox, of course. All of this is possible with Internet Explorer or the very good Safari or Opera browsers, but Firefox just makes it that much better. It’s so easy and fast to use, plus there are certain extensions I can’t live without — Foxmarks, Gmail Manager, FireFTP, Download Statusbar and Web Developer among them. Give me Firefox, and I don’t care what brand of OS I’m using.
Is online software as feature-rich as desktop software? Not yet. But it’s good enough for my simple needs, and it’s getting better all the time.
Have I really gotten rid of my hard drive and software? Not yet. I still have all my old files on the hard drive, but they’re collecting dust. I no longer store my new files on my hard drive, and I rarely use my old desktop software. I keep them on my computer just in case I need to open up a specially formatted file, but for my nitty-gritty daily work, I don’t need that old software anymore.
Someday, none of us will, and the decades-old OS debate will be a thing of the past.
Leo Babauta is a writer, a marathoner, an early riser, a vegan, and a father of six. He blogs regularly about achieving goals through daily habits on Zen Habits, and covers such topics as productivity, GTD, simplifying, frugality, parenting, happiness, motivation, exercise, eating healthy and more.