Last week I lost a ton of productivity because the hard disk on my laptop failed. There's a long story behind this.

The short version is that I knew it was failing for a few weeks and, yes, I had backups. The IT folks got me a new notebook (an HP nc6400 which isn't bad, really) and I've spent quite a bit of time getting my stuff running again.

But I had backups, right? Yes. But let's be honest. The vast majority of Windows applications make it quite difficult to migrate from machine 1 to machine 2 and preserve all your settings, customizations, and preferences. Notable exceptions to this are Mozilla Firefox and Mozilla Thunderbird , both of which were designed to be cross-platform from the beginning. With them I simply need to copy my profile from the latest backup over to my new machine after I've installed the latest version. It's almost trivial.

Compare that with something like Microsoft Office, where I always find myself having to fuck around in the settings to disable all the "helpful" auto-formatting defaults and other nonsense.

When I wrote How To Add Good Expires Headers to Images in Apache 1.3 earlier, I loaded up my trusty and recently installed AbiWord only to find it hanging for some mysterious reason. I let it sit for a while and eventually killed it off after waiting about 15 minutes. In the meantime I loaded up the bloatware known as Microsoft Word to compose that little blog post.

For whatever reason, Word had a different problem. When I clicked the font list (I hate the default font), it hung. The UI became completely unresponsive. Having less patience, I killed it after a couple minutes of waiting.

Neither of those problems are likely to be easy for me to debug (do they write out a timestamped log file that I can read?).

It was at that point that I basically said "screw these freshly installed desktop applications on this brand new notebook... I'll just use Google Docs to compose the damned blog post." You can understand my state of mind, already having invested far too much time in what should be an appliance that does what I need.

And you know what?

It worked quite nicely. I'd used Google Spreadsheets before, but this was my first real use of Google Docs. No auto-formatting crap to turn of. No annoying load time. No disk swapping as the software pulled in a ton of libraries. Heck, my browser was already open anyway. And I was writing with the intent of publishing to everyone, so who cares about security?

It was at that point that a shift took place in my thinking. I'm simply not going to bother with the hassle, trouble, expense, and complexity of desktop applications when an online substitute will do the job anymore. Life's too short already.

I have to say, this on-line office stuff is starting to seem very, very real. I wonder what Microsoft will do about people like me...

Posted by jzawodn at July 23, 2007 04:01 PM

Reader Comments
# Ken Norton said:

Welcome aboard. Your next step in this migration will be to have an allergic reaction whenever somebody sends you a Word document as an email attachment. It's about as annoying as receiving a fax :-) Fortunately Gmail lets you open it in Google Docs.


on July 23, 2007 04:12 PM
# valleyblogzine said:

I think for the purpose you mentioned they work ok. Trying something intensive or for serious publishing you'll still need Adobe/Word or something like that. BTW, Microsoft Excel has been around for a long long time. It is going to take Google Spreadsheets a long long time to become that feature rich. But I do see your point on using these web based apps for basic stuff.

on July 23, 2007 04:16 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Yeah, for 80% of what I do I really need only the 20% of features that I can get online. Simplicity is a good thing.

on July 23, 2007 04:27 PM
# Andy C said:

Weird. I use Google Docs for personal documents and am obliged to use Microsoft Word at work.

While I have tried using Google Docs to post to my WordPress blog, I much prefer the WYSIWYG editor, mainly for the preview option.

I have toyed with experimenting with Live Writer but the very thought of using Microsoft Word simply to post to my blog just seems like self inflicted torture and bizarre in the extreme.

on July 23, 2007 04:32 PM
# BillyG said:

Sounds exactly why I switched to leaving all my bookmarks on some 10,272 saves ago.

disclaimer: any existing M$ tags are still there because those folks [:-)] don't like multiple tags deleted at once and I've been putting it off manually

on July 23, 2007 04:34 PM
# E. David Zotter said:

I'd like to see some competition to the Google Office “designer imposter” apps. Google, google, google. Sure, some of the stuff is nifty for quick jobs, but not ready for full to day usage. Am I the only one that gets frustrated learning new webapps with links, buttons, and forms spread all over a page?

Yahoo acquired perhaps the group with the most office like interface, OddPost. I knew how to use it 30 seconds after logging in. At the point of acquisition, it was the best out there and gave Yahoo considerable know-how. You met with the guys…why were they not given more influential positions?
Where is Oddpost-Word? Where is OddPost-Excel?

Why has Yahoo been sitting on their hands? The ex-CEO can’t be blamed for everything.

If one were to clone a Word 97 as a web based AJAX app, I bet millions of people would be comfortable moving…. just as you did during laptop meltdown recently.

Sure, some of the Google Office apps have novel new interfaces…. but people like my parents and grandparents have been using Office for a decade. Could they move to an online Office web app with a familiar interface? Yes, absolutely. They’d do this far more easily than moving to a new ribbon interface in Office 2007.

The windows are closing, where is Oddpost Office 2.0?

E. David Zotter

on July 23, 2007 05:27 PM
# Jerry Gartner said:

I think that Microsoft offering subscriptions to Office is a good idea. This gives consumers the option to try before they buy. Office 2007 is redesigned to the point of stupidity. Things that I've known how to do for years now require searching help. Very, very frustrating. Fortunately, Open Office is still easy to use. If you want to read about more problems about Office 2007, have a look at

on July 23, 2007 06:38 PM
# jr said:

For what it's worth, I recently went through the same issue twice and had no problem. Granted, I use OpenOffice, so after a fairly quick install, I was back up and running. Granted, my backups comprise mostly the documents I've created rather than the applications I want to install, and I usually keep recent versions of those applications on a common shared drive, so rebuilds aren't a complete pain in the ass for me.

Still, whatever solution works...

on July 23, 2007 06:48 PM
# Eric said:

Personally, I *like* Office 2007. I can get why a long time user of office wouldn't like it, but the new UI really is better once you get the hang of it. It also seems to load faster and use less memory than 2003, though I haven't done any benchmark comparisons on my system. (And it definitely performs better than OpenOffice). I'm willing to give MS credit where credit's due, and I believe 2007 is a compelling upgrade.

That said, I still vastly prefer Google Docs. While I'll use Word for something that requires complex formatting, that's really a once-in-a-blue-moon type thing - and even in those cases, most of the advanced features of word go unused. If I'm just banging out paragraphs of text though, the simplicity of Google works in its favor. No bloat, no clutter.

For me, there are two features Word *doesn't* have that make Google's offering superior: The first is automatic synchronization between my desktop and laptop by virtue of living on the web (a problem that used to plague me a couple of years ago). And the collaboration features, though I use them less, are awesome for when you do use them.

(I have less use of spreadsheets, though there I tend to favor Excel. For the quicky kind of charts and calculations I usually need it for, the rich client UI proves faster.)

on July 23, 2007 07:03 PM
# Tough interview questions said:

I like Google docs, except i find it too slow(I guess i expect the UI to be as fast or comparable to MS office). This has been a major deterrent for me to adopt it fully.

- prem

on July 23, 2007 07:41 PM
# Richard Crowley said:

The bottom line is that in the year 2007, formatting a document as if it were destined to be on paper is silly. Because documents are going to be viewed on screen, the viewer, not the composer, has control over how it is displayed. Google Docs' 20% feature set is good for more than 80% of uses because it isn't as important now how a document looks as you compose it.

(The analogy here is that RSS (to an extent) takes control of the format away from the composer and puts it in the viewer's hands.)

on July 23, 2007 07:50 PM
# DazzlinDonna said:

I feel your pain. I just went through this over the weekend. In fact, I lamented about it over at the seorefugee forum ( where I stated, "So, my computer died yesterday. Bought a new one today. It's a beaut, and I'm sure I will love it, but setting it up so that I can get back to work again is a royal pain in the @ss. And I've had to do this just one too many times over the years. I'm sick of it. Sick, I say, sick!

I want a web OS. I want all my applications and all my data stored somewhere else. I want to plop a new computer on my desk and be instantly connected and sync'd up with all my apps and all my data. I never want to install something ever again."

I think a new era has begun.

on July 23, 2007 08:39 PM
# Geoff said:

The major problem with online apps. is that well you have to be able to get online - I arrived at my hotel to be told the email reservation wasn't there so I went to check my gmail to find no internet was available. Oops. What is required is a combination where all your settings and stuff are backed up online and when I get a new PC it all autosyncs.

on July 23, 2007 09:07 PM
# Marcin said:

With something like Adobe AIR (or even Google Gears) these online apps will soon also work offline just as well, and sync up when a network connection is available. Perfect for office type apps.

on July 24, 2007 01:38 AM
# Jeffrey Friedl said:

Wow, using Word to compose a blog post? I can't even imagine such a hell. I use emacs on a local file, inserting into my blog via the "file based posts" Wordpress plugin.

on July 24, 2007 07:22 AM
# Doug Cutting said:

I too recently got an HP nc6400. I just installed Ubuntu, rsync'd my home directory and was up and running. [Obligatory self-satisfied Linux user comment.]

on July 24, 2007 08:21 AM
# Raju Vegesna said:


There are alternatives to Google Docs (not from Oddpost though). Check out Zoho (

on July 24, 2007 08:35 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:


That's exactly what I expect to happen...

on July 24, 2007 09:45 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:


Yeah. Well, mostly AbiWord until it freaked out. Then I fell back to Word.

I've never been happy with the spell checking setup in Emacs on Windows. I guess this would be less of an issue if I was hauling around a Mac, but that has other problems too...

Ah, now I have fond memories of the times I was using Linux on my notebook as my primary computer. (Mostly because I've chosen to forget about most of the hardware/driver/power management hell.)

on July 24, 2007 10:17 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:


Yeah, I'm tempted to do the same but I need to play a bit more with VMWare on one of my other boxes first. There are a few Windows apps that I need...

on July 24, 2007 10:28 AM
# Ben Metcalfe said:

Compare that with something like Microsoft Office, where I always find myself having to fuck around in the settings

Wow, I've never heard you swear before Jeremy. You really must be frustrated. Have you tried ThinkFree (either the online edition or the download edition - it's actually pretty good).

on July 24, 2007 11:09 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:


Oh, it's not the first time. Trust me. :-)

But, yeah, it is frustrating. This is 2007 and software still sucks so badly in so many ways. It's rather remarkable, don't you think?

on July 24, 2007 11:14 AM
# Joe Duck said:

Right on J. I'm have also been migrating away from MS office aps (and browser, and ...). I was worried I just wasn't clever enough to handle their quirks. Now I feel vindicated that it was MS BS rather than my own defects.

on July 24, 2007 11:29 PM
# Charlie Crystle said:

I tried Google's spreadsheet for about a day, and it sucked--really slow. Heavily coded browser apps take up way too much system resources, even with a speedy dual proc. The word proc is fine, but any app with a browser is going to be slowqer than native code...basically running code to ask the browser to ask the system to do something for you. It's like kissing through a wool sock.

on July 25, 2007 12:13 PM
# Zoli Erdos said:

I made the liberating move off the desktop a few months ago, and am finding myself a lot more productive. Wrote up my experience: Desktop Software: A Failed Model (link under my name).

on July 27, 2007 07:57 AM
# Dennis Howlett said:

I wrote about this switch back in December 2005 when my last PC laptop blew up. I went to Mac and the cloud in one easy move. Never looked back.

But as you say: What will M$ do about users like you? From their perspective, you're a pretty important person who has direct influence inside a rather large community.

on July 29, 2007 02:07 PM
# Peter Manis said:

I was going to switch to OpenOffice a while back, and while it is a great application I found that it would not properly read Word documents. Losing the formatting can obviously be a big problem so I have to resort to Word for some thing. I do write most of my documents in OpenOffice as it has a better PDF export than PDF printer drivers. The downside of PDF is of course that most recipients cannot edit the document if they need to. I prefer receiving documents in PDF because I know I can do a quick download on any machine and read the PDF with no loss of formatting.

on July 29, 2007 10:01 PM
# Mikael Bergkvist said:

I agree with the observations made here, and commented further on them in our own blog over at

on July 30, 2007 09:03 AM
# Denis said:

I would tend to agree with just about everything you say, down with bloatware!!!!! As for OddPost, it has become the new Yahoo webmail...


on August 3, 2007 12:50 PM
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