Review: The Best Ajax-Based Apps


Welcome, boys and girls, to the computing world of tomorrow! Desktop programs are a thing of the past, replaced by free, simple, Web-based apps that do everything from spreadsheets to e-mail -- and more!


Ajax Apps


•  Introduction

•  Calendars

•  E-Mail

•  Info Managers

•  Spreadsheets

•  Webtops

•  Word Processors


•  Image Gallery

Making it possible is Ajax (Asynchronous JAvaScript and XML), a programming technique that lends Web sites the same kinds of interactivity and speed that desktop programs have traditionally had. With Ajax, we'll no longer need desktop applications. Our data will be available to us everywhere we go, because it will all be stored on Ajax-based Web sites. Who needs Microsoft or other makers of desktop software? We're finally free!

That's the hype, anyway. But is it actually true?

To find out, we've scoured the Internet for the best Ajax-based sites in six categories: calendars, e-mail, information managers, spreadsheets, desktops (known in the Ajax world as webtops), and word processors. We've picked the winners and runners-up in each category, and taken a look at a few of the other competitors in each category as well.


What Exactly Is Ajax?

Ajax lets Web developers create interactive Web sites that function more like desktop programs than slow, static Web sites. Gmail and Google Maps are two of the most common examples of sites built using Ajax. A variety of techniques allow Ajax to place the interactivity directly within the browser, instead of the browser having to constantly contact a Web server to get information.

When someone visits an Ajax site, the browser loads the HTML page as it would normally. After that, though, Ajax uses JavaScript for interactivity. When a site visitor makes a request for more information -- for example, to fetch a map -- the JavaScript makes the request. The JavaScript doesn't make a request for information directly to a Web site, though -- instead, it uses an API called XMLHttpRequest to transfer the data back and forth. (The data requested is usually in XML format, although it doesn't have to be.) This allows the Web page and JavaScript to continue to interact with the user, while the XMLHttpRequest handles communications with the server.

JavaScript takes the information handed to it by the XMLHttpRequest, and then uses it or displays it. But only the portion of the page that needs the information is refreshed. This speeds up the display of information, because the entire page doesn't have to be changed.

First off, don't throw away your desktop applications just yet. As a general rule, Ajax sites simply aren't as powerful or as useful as their desktop counterparts. Spreadsheet jockeys, for example, will want to stick with Excel for the foreseeable future.

But we also found surprising power and features in these sites. For example, Zoho Writer is in some ways superior to Word, because it automatically creates an HTML version of your document on the fly, and handles images better. And Gmail can give any e-mail program a run for its money.

In general, if you're looking to collaborate on documents, or share calendars, these sites can't be beat. Nothing on your desktop compares with them.

Also, keep in mind that most, if not all, of these applications are still in beta mode (in fact, a couple insist they're alpha), and so may change radically over the coming months.

So which are the winners and losers? Check out our reviews in each of the categories to find out.
Calendars

The Winner: Google Calendar
Google is obviously trying to become the king of online desktop apps -- between Gmail, Google Spreadsheets, and Writely, it's clear that an online Google suite is the company's Next Big Thing. Google Calendar is an excellent part of that suite.



Google Calendar keeps it simple enough to be useful to a range of users.
Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.

Like other Ajax-based calendars, Google Calendar lets you quickly create events for your schedule by typing everything into a single box, as in "Meeting With Boss 9am to 10am Conference Room B" -- the application's engine will parse it out and insert it into your calendar properly. You can also fill out a form. In either case, you have to first click on a link before you start typing -- other calendars have a box available all the time, which is slightly more convenient.

The best part of Google Calendar is its clever and easy-to-understand way of dealing with shared calendars. You can add as many iCal-based or shared private calendars as you want -- Google lists them all on the side of the window. You then check off which ones you want visible on your calendar at any one time, which means you can have a load of shared calendars available without crowding your interface with all of them at once. For example, you can uncheck your kids' schedules and just look at your business appointments.


Ajax Apps


•  Introduction

•  Calendars

•  E-Mail

•  Info Managers

•  Spreadsheets

•  Webtops

•  Word Processors


•  Image Gallery

Calendar entries can include a lot of useful info besides topic and time, such as location (mapped with Google Maps, of course) and guests. You can schedule meetings not only daily or weekly, but for such odd repetitions as every Tuesday and Thursday -- and you can send notifications via e-mail, SMS, or cell phone.

Google Calendar isn't perfect -- my wish list includes an associated to-do list, the ability to sync with Outlook and/or a handheld, and better integration with its other services. But on the whole, this is a highly useful app.

One note: While I was writing this review, there was a glitch in the operation of my calendar, and I couldn't access three of my shared calendars. I contacted Google with the names of the affected calendars; they said they were aware of the problem, and within 24 hours, the error had been corrected. They may have already been working on it when I reported it, but I have to say, it's been a long time since I've gotten that kind of service from even a paid software company.

The Runner-Up: 30 Boxes
Using 30 Boxes is like buying a new car with manual transmission and lots of extras -- you don't just want to drive it, you want to fool around with it to see what it can do.



30 Boxes is almost too much of a good thing.
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While at its simplest level, 30 Boxes works as an online calendar, you can easily add weather reports, RSS feeds, a to-do list, or notices from LiveJournal, Flickr, and MySpace to your calendar. You can add buddies and share calendars with them. 30 Boxes even comes with its own (admittedly simple) webtop that offers a summary of your daily appointments and to-do entries, and adds applets such as Google search, Yahoo Mail, and even -- wait for it -- your Google Calendar. And the folks at 30 Boxes are constantly adding more: The day I wrote this, they announced a mobile version for cell phones.

But all that really cool stuff can be a bit overwhelming if all you want to do is track your appointments. Which you certainly can do with 30 Boxes -- and have a lot of fun in the process.

Also Available:

CalendarHub: CalendarHub offers basic calendar features: You can enter an appointment, share with another user, import from some other calendars, and synchronize it with an iCal calendar. However, none of these are implemented in a terribly sophisticated way. In other words, this one is useable, but can't compete with the others listed here. (Click here for image.)

Kiko Calendar: I had originally written some nice things about Kiko: that it has some interesting design aspects, for example, and that while it's not quite up to Google Calendar, it has a lot of potential. But as of this writing, it was up for sale on eBay. With no idea of whom the new owners will be or what they'll do with it, I can't recommend Kiko at this time. (Click here for image.)

--Barbara Krasnoff

E-Mail

The Winner: Gmail
Google wins again, this time in the category of Ajax-based e-mail. This will not come as a surprise to any Gmail user -- the service has gotten plaudits from a variety of sources, and I've got a lot of friends who now have Gmail e-mail addresses.



Gmail rivals many desktop e-mail applications in usefulness.
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One reason Gmail has drawn so much favorable attention is that it is one of the few online e-mail services around that deviates from the usual formula. To begin with, Gmail adopted a threaded approach, where e-mails with the same senders/recipients and subject headers are presented together rather than as separate e-mails. While this approach is available in some desktop e-mail packages -- Lotus Notes, for example, has an option for threaded conversations -- Gmail has taken it as its default. I subscribe to at least one very active listserv, and this approach created for me a sense of a conversation that actually changed the way I interacted with the members of the list.


Ajax Apps


•  Introduction

•  Calendars

•  E-Mail

•  Info Managers

•  Spreadsheets

•  Webtops

•  Word Processors


•  Image Gallery

Another major difference is Gmail's use of labels rather than folders to help users organize their e-mail. As someone who depends on folders to try to track her vast store of e-mails, I was doubtful how comfortable I'd be with this approach, but I got used to it really fast. You create labels for your categories (for example, "Family," "Workgroup," "Printer News"), which appear on a list on the side of your screen; click on a label and your list will contain only those e-mail messages that bear the label. And you don't have to manually label your e-mail; you can have incoming e-mail filtered for a variety of factors and labeled automatically.

In fact, Gmail has a number of interesting features to encourage people to use it as a central place to receive and send e-mail. For example, you can have your outgoing Gmail messages display a different e-mail address (handy if, like me, you occasionally forward your own e-mail to Gmail to make it easier to access from another computer), you can use it as a POP-enabled mail server -- and, of course, you can use Google's search engine to search through your e-mails.

That, and 2.5GB of storage space, is what makes Gmail the winner in this category, hands-down.

The Runner-Up: Yahoo Mail
Yahoo Mail went to an Ajax-based format only recently (and users have a choice of this or the original format). While there is nothing particularly revolutionary about its approach -- understandable, since Yahoo has a large existing user-base that is used to the more traditional interface -- it has absorbed the new technology well. (Except, of course, for the fact that Yahoo was the target for one of the Yamanner worm, one of the first to target Ajax sites.)



Yahoo Mail has made a good transition to an Ajax-based format.
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Yahoo Mail uses the traditional folder method of organization; with Ajax, you can now use drag-and-drop to move e-mails. A nice addition is the use of tabbed pages, so that you can have several e-mails open at once and easily go from one to the other. The interface is more advertising-heavy than Google's, and it has a decent, if not overwhelming, set of features such as filters and vacation responses. Yahoo Mail offers only 1GB of storage space compared to Gmail's 2.5GB.

Also Available:

AOL Mail: If you want to see if your old AOL e-mail address still works, you may want to check out AOL's new Web interface. It very much resembles Yahoo's: folders on the left, listing in the center, and ads wherever they can put them. You get 2GB of storage space and, if you're a long-time member, all the spam you can eat. (Click here for image.)

Windows Live Mail: Microsoft has provided its new e-mail service with a nicely simple interface (although leaving space for the usual advertising) and a lot of security -- any e-mail that comes from a sender who is not on your Allowed Senders or Contacts list generates a warning, and all attachments, images, and links are blocked until you say otherwise. You get 2GB of space and a few features, although they can be hard to find -- filters, for example, are found by clicking Options and then looking for the "Mail and junk e-mail" link. Well, it's still a work in progress. (Click here for image.)

--Barbara Krasnoff

Information Managers

The Winner: Google Notebook
We're getting a little tired of giving Google the nod, but it's the truth: Google Notebook is the perfect solution for organizing clips of information you find on the Web, and makes searching and browsing far more productive than you might imagine. The site lets you create "notebooks" that you organize into sections. You can copy clips from Web pages, or entire Web pages, into each section. The clips and sites contain the full content of the page, including graphics, multimedia, and so on. You can drag and drop clips among sections, and rearrange sections easily.



Google Notebook offers a great way to organize the info you clip from the Web.
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Finding information you've saved is exceptionally easy, because not only can you browse by section, but you can also use Google's search tools to search within your notebook. The interface is typical Google minimalist, which is ideal, because it lets your clips and information take center stage.

Start by installing a mini-app that works inside your browser (versions are available for both Firefox and Internet Explorer) and runs as a small, discrete icon. Click it when you come across something on the Web you want to clip and store. In addition, you can highlight a section of a Web page, right-click it, and store it directly to the notebook.


Ajax Apps


•  Introduction

•  Calendars

•  E-Mail

•  Info Managers

•  Spreadsheets

•  Webtops

•  Word Processors


•  Image Gallery

For browsing, finding, and organizing the information once you've clipped it, it's best to go to the full Google Notebook page. From there, you can also share notebooks with others.

That said, I had some problems with Google Notebook. In testing, it occasionally choked when I pasted in very large amounts of information with many Web images. And it can be a bit confusing to use the mini-app that runs in your browser -- it's not always easy to know into which category you're placing clips. But these are minor quibbles. Anyone who needs to organize bits of information online should use this site, and that pretty much means all of us.

The Runner-Up: Backpack
Think of this as a pumped-up note-taker and to-do list organizer. For each project you want to organize, you create a page, each of which can include to-do lists, freeform text, notes, and reminders. You can even create reminders that are automatically sent to you via e-mail or to your cell phone via SMS. And if you use Apple iCal, Mozilla Calendar, or any program that supports the iCalendar format, your reminders will be automatically added to your calendar.



One of Backpack's best features is its ability to create automatic reminders.
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If you want to have a calendar, store files and images, or create more than five pages or ten reminders, you'll have to upgrade to a for-pay plan. Depending on how many pages and reminders, and how much storage you want, the cost ranges between $5 and $14 per month.

Also Available:

Voo2do: Want to get organized? It's hard to tell if this site will really help. On the one hand, it includes plenty of tools for keeping track of projects, including the ability to create to-dos, write notes, track deadlines, and collaborate. On the other hand, the site is so confusing to use, you may decide it's better to revert to paper and pencil. (Click here for image.)

TimeTracker: Do you charge computer tasks by the hour -- as a consultant, perhaps? Need some way to keep track of the time you spend? Then give this site a try...but don't expect too much. Create a task, start the timer for it, then come back when the job is done and stop the timer. You'll be told how long you just spent on it. Yes, you could also do this with a stopwatch, but that wouldn't be as much fun, would it? (Click here for image.)

--Preston Gralla

Spreadsheets

The Winner: Google Spreadsheets
If you're a spreadsheet jockey, you won't be impressed by Google Spreadsheets. After all, it doesn't let you create charts, it doesn't include macros, you can't create pivot tables, and it won't perform data validation.



Google Spreadsheets has collaboration tools that can't be beat.
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If you're anyone else, though -- and that means most of us -- you'll be more than impressed with this Ajax-based spreadsheet. What's not to like? It includes dozens of built-in spreadsheet functions, and using them is exceptionally easy -- click the Formulas link at the top of the page, then click the formula you want to insert, and you're done.

You want to format your worksheet? Simple: Highlight the cells you want to format, click Choose Format, and there you are. You can round your figures out or show them to two decimals, while dates can be in one of four different formats. You can also easily change the font, size, or color of your cell contents, and add borders. Other functions are near at hand, such as sorting columns and data, copying, pasting, and undoing.


Ajax Apps


•  Introduction

•  Calendars

•  E-Mail

•  Info Managers

•  Spreadsheets

•  Webtops

•  Word Processors


•  Image Gallery

Google's collaboration tools are even better. Type in the e-mail addresses of colleagues whom you want to edit or view your spreadsheet, click Invite People, and they can share your spreadsheet with you. When two people work on a spreadsheet together, each can see what the other is doing live, and you can chat at the same time.

This is not to say that Google Spreadsheets is perfect. Its export function is severely limited: You can only export spreadsheets in two formats, .XLS and .CSV, which pales compared to the wide range of formats available to runner-up Zoho Sheet.

Still, that's a small drawback. With a solid set of easy-to-use (yet surprisingly powerful) spreadsheet functions and superb collaboration tools, this one is a winner for anyone who needs to collaborate using spreadsheets.

The Runner-Up: Zoho Sheet
Zoho Sheet is a close runner-up to Google Spreadsheets, and in fact bests it in several ways. It lets you create charts, for example, and you can export to more formats than Google Spreadsheets, including Excel, OpenOffice, .CSV, HTML, and PDF.



Zoho Sheet lets you create charts and export to multiple formats.
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Where it falls down is collaboration. You can invite people to share your spreadsheets, and you can give them read-only or read-write access. But despite multiple efforts, I couldn't get it to work properly; edits made by one person didn't show up to the other person working on the same sheet and vice versa. In time, this bug may be worked out, and Zoho Sheet could end up the winner.

Also Available:

Num Sum: If you're looking for a simple-to-use Ajax-based spreadsheet that offers a good set of features and tools in several toolbars, Num Sum is worth a try. Like the other spreadsheets in this roundup, it lets you invite others to collaborate on the spreadsheet. And you can also add charts.

But where are the formulas? You can insert a number of different formulas on your own (SUM, AVERAGE, COUNT, and so on), but which are available? There's no way to know unless you go through the help system. And there's no way to insert the formulas with mouse-clicks; you'll have to type them in manually. (Click here for image.)

iRows: iRows offers all the basics you'd expect from an Ajax-based spreadsheet, but doesn't go much beyond that. And there's one big drawback: It misleads you into clicking on advertising by implying that links are spreadsheet functions rather than ads. Across the top of the page are links such as Spreadsheet Controls and Cash Flow Spreadsheet. Click on them, and you get sent to Google-based advertising. (Click here for image.)

--Preston Gralla

Webtops

The Winners: Pageflakes and YouOS
I went back and forth trying to decide between Pageflakes and YouOS, and in the end, decided that they both rate as winners in this category.

That is, if this category can be said to have any winners. Ajax-based webtops basically act as Web-based backdrops for a bunch of applets such as RSS feed readers, chat engines, blogs, photo organizers, and so on. They are a lot of fun to play with, but whether they are actually useful is still in question.

Pageflakes: If I were going to use an Ajax desktop, Pageflakes is the one I'd pick. To begin with, Pageflakes has the most interesting and useful types of applets (which it calls Flakes), and the widest variety: Besides offering a very easy way to link to various popular RSS feeds, the service lets you add the Funny Quote of the Day and TV listings; use a movie finder that hooks into IMDB.com; chat live using the Pageflakes chat engine (which is actually not very useful, since you can only chat to other Pageflakes users); write notes; check the weather; keep to-do and contact lists... There's even a link to a simple Alexa graph that lets you monitor the traffic of up to five Web sites. As of this writing, there were 98 different Flakes that you could choose from.



Pageflakes has the most interesting and useful applets (which it calls Flakes).
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The interface is useful as well: You can organize your Flakes into separate tabbed pages and easily move them from one page to the next. You can even share pages with friends.
Pageflakes has obviously had a lot of thought go into it -- and it shows.

YouOS: The developers of YouOS call their webtop a "web operating system," which is catchy, but not terribly accurate. The reason? They not only invite their users to contribute their own applets (here called Apps), but provide the development environment as well. All you have to do is click the "Develop Apps" button and you're provided with a text window, a syntax checker, a compiler -- everything you need. In other words, YouOS isn't a simple webtop site as much as it is an educational tool for users who want to develop their JavaScript programming skills.



YouOS looks like a real desktop with icons and minimized apps.
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Meanwhile, YouOS is doing a nice job of building an Ajax-based environment that, unlike Pageflakes, does its best to look like a real desktop -- it includes a snazzy desktop graphic and Windows-like icons. Live applications are listed along the top of the window, which I found confusing, since I've become used to looking for tabbed pages there. Your list of available apps, and other features, can be found in a drop-down menu labeled "Stuff."


Ajax Apps


•  Introduction

•  Calendars

•  E-Mail

•  Info Managers

•  Spreadsheets

•  Webtops

•  Word Processors


•  Image Gallery

As of last count, there were 119 Apps available, many built by YouOS fans -- as a result, while there are some highly useful and/or entertaining entries, including encryption programs, e-mail and chat apps, and games, the count also includes Apps such as the one called "The Best Messege!" [sic] that offers a single inspirational text message.
Currently, YouOS is obviously in the development stage. However, any application that invites its users to participate to this extent deserves attention.

The Runner-Up: Goowy
Goowy is an interesting combination of office suite and webtop. It offers a simple, well-designed interface; features are accessible by icons on the bottom right of the screen. It includes a contact list, calendar, e-mail app (that, unlike the one in YouOS, can send and receive e-mails from outside the environment), instant messaging, and a variety of widgets (which it calls Minis).



Goowy is an interesting combination of office suite and webtop.
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Most of the apps are very beta: I was unable to sign in to the instant messaging, for example, and had some problems importing my contact list. However, the makers of Goowy are obviously thinking very hard about their interface and their offering; it will be interesting to see how this one develops.

Also Available:

Protopage: This is the webtop for the artistic personality. Protopage only offers a short list of widgets, but it also lets you design your own environment, including access to a variety of configurable color schemes and the choice of either lining up your various boxes or just placing them wherever you like (including, if you want, overlapped). Not all that useful, but very enjoyable. (Click here for image.)

Windows Live: The corporate version of the webtop, brought to you by Microsoft. Tabbed pages give you access to news feeds, weather, your Hotmail account, stock quotes, and a variety of applets, here called Gadgets. Some useful stuff here, but they're obviously playing it safe. (Click here for image.)

--Barbara Krasnoff

Word Processors

The Winner: Zoho Writer
Ajax-based word processors may be good for collaboration, and they can offer solid basic functionality. But for power features, I fully expected that I'd have to turn to their desktop-based counterparts.



For image-heavy documents, Zoho Writer is superior to Microsoft Word.
Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.

Wrong, at least as far as Zoho Writer is concerned. This site gives you all the collaboration tools you'd expect in an Ajax application, along with a suite of features that any power user would love. In fact, for some purposes, such as creating graphics-heavy documents or documents for which you want an HTML version, it beats Microsoft Word.

For a start, it includes very good text-handling, the ability to change font color and size, a spell-checker, undo, and more -- pretty much all the solid basics of a word processor. It's all accessible via an intuitive toolbar whose icons look much like Word's.


Ajax Apps


•  Introduction

•  Calendars

•  E-Mail

•  Info Managers

•  Spreadsheets

•  Webtops

•  Word Processors


•  Image Gallery

It excels in creation of HTML pages, because it automatically creates an HTML version of any file as you type. You can toggle between normal and HTML views, and you can easily add your own HTML tags. It also includes dialog boxes for coding links, anchors, and graphics. In addition, Zoho Writer's insert-image feature outstrips Word's, because it lets you customize spacing and alignment -- and it then automatically converts all that to the proper HTML code.

Zoho Writer can also export files to many formats, including Word .DOC files, Rich Text Format (.RTF), text files, PDF, HTML, the Open Office .SXW extension, and OpenDocument's .ODT format.

As for collaboration, it's got what you need as well. It's simple to invite others to view or get read/write access to the document. Bloggers will appreciate its ability to link directly into accounts for Blogger, LiveJournal, WordPress, and TypePad, and to upload your current document as a post.

There is one downside to this site: I found it to be slow to load, and the initial load often took a few minutes. But that's a small price to pay for such a power-packed word processor. The only hard thing to believe about Zoho Writer is that it's actually free.

The Runner-Up: Writely
Writely offers solid, straightforward word-processing tools, automatic HTML creation, and the ability to save in multiple formats, including .DOC, .RTF, .PDF, .HTML and OpenOffice. And, like Zoho Writer, it lets you publish your documents to a variety of blogs. Writely, though, doesn't offer the advanced word processing tools available in Zoho Writer, so has to settle for runner-up status.



Writely offers solid word processing, but it's not as powerful as Zoho Writer.
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Google bought this site a while back, but has yet to put its stamp on it. If you're looking for a site with good, basic word processing capabilities, and very good collaboration tools, Writely is worth a try.

Also Available:

ajaxWrite: If you're just looking to create a simple document and don't need collaboration tools or the ability to manage multiple files, ajaxWrite is worth a look. It works only with Mozilla browsers, though, and lacks power features. (Click here for image.)

Writeboard: Welcome to the 1980s. Want to make text bold? You'll have to put the characters * and * around it. For big text, first type in h1. All that's missing is a DOS prompt and a floppy disk. No thanks -- been there, done that. (Click here for image.)

--Preston Gralla