Desktop applications have their charm, but most of your information already lives on the web. Ditch those clunky desktop apps for webapps without losing their better features—like notifications, shortcuts, offline access, etc.—and free up precious system resources along the way.
Most Lifehacker readers may already be usingGmail as their number one mail client, Google Reader for their RSS feeds, and other webapps to fill various needs, but lots of us are still using native desktop applications to access email, RSS, and other such things. With operating systems like Chrome OS on the horizon, the world looks to be becoming more and more browser-based. You may prefer your desktop client for one reason or another—perhaps you need instant notification of when your mail arrives, or perhaps you like being able to keystroke your way through your RSS feeds. Or perhaps you just need to be able to access what you can offline. Those of us hooked on clients have probably hardly noticed, though, that nowadays almost all these features can be found somewhere in today’s most popular webapps.
Note that when I talk about using webapps, I don’t mean just throw them all into site-specific browsers (SSBs) with Google Chrome, previously mentioned Fluid for Mac, or Mozilla’s Prism. They’re certainly an option if you prefer keeping your applications running in separate windows with unique taskbar/dock icons, but these can hog your RAM just as much as desktop apps, and it isn’t necessary for most of the webapps we use today. Some webapps you want to keep open all the time, like a web-based IM client (such as previously mentioned Meebo or eBuddy) or a web-based music player (such as previously mentioned Lala or Pandora), and for these an SSB is a great idea. But if you’re keeping a bunch of applications open just so you’ll receive notifications, there are other, less RAM-heavy ways to pull it off.
Use a System Tray or Menu Bar Apps to Receive Notifications
Instead of keeping a client or SSB open waiting for notifications to come, you’re better off opening up things like Gmail or Google Calendar only when you need them. To receive notifications, install a small notifier app such as Google Notifier, which will give you notifications of incoming mail or upcoming calendar events (either through the app’s native notifications or through Growl on the Mac with the addition of Gmail+Growl).
This way, you can keep your email lightweight and out of the way unless you need it, and if you ever click a mailto link, the notifier will automatically open up Gmail for you (or you can compose a message or create a calendar event by clicking on the app’s icon). If you use multiple Gmail accounts (which this app doesn’t yet support), there are other notifiers available for Windows, and you can use this workaround from Mac OS X Hints to get notifications for two accounts on a Mac.
Similar lightweight notifiers are available forGoogle Reader notifications—though you may prefer to use an extension for Firefoxor Chrome extension with an unread badge (instead of badgering you with popup notifications all the time).
Learn Your Webapps’ Keyboard Shortcuts
We here at Lifehacker are keyboard shortcut junkies, so when webapps like Gmail, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Remember the Milk, and a whole host of othersstarted adding keyboard shortcuts, we were in heaven. In Google’s webapps, turning these on is easy—just go to Settings and click on the General Tab, and look for the “Enable Keyboard Shortcuts” option, which also provides a link to the shortcuts for that particular application. Other apps, like Remember the Milk, already have shortcuts enabled, you just have to use them.
Access Your Webapps Offline When You’re Not Connected
It’s been a gradual process, but lots of Google’s apps have built up their offline access with Google Gears, allowing you to view your email inbox, calendar, RSS feeds, and even edit documents when you’re not connected. This feature is likely to change soon, what with the depreciation of Gears and the transition to HTML5(sadly, if you’re on a Mac, you’ve already been left high and dry since Gears is no longer available in most browsers), but for now all you need to do is click the Offline button in supported Google webapps (or, in the case of Gmail, turn the feature on by going to Settings > Offline) and you can access your most important tools without needing to set them up in a client. This feature is even available in some non-Google webapps, like Remember the Milk, so you can keep your to-do list around no matter how flaky the internet decides to be.
Use Multiple Accounts in Gmail and Google Calendar
A feature of clients a bit more specific to mail clients (and, to a certain extent, calendars) is the ability to access all your accounts at once, but this feature is available in Gmail as well. You can easily set up forwarding in most email accounts, Gmail or non-Gmail, to the Gmail account from which you want to manage all your addresses—but what’s even better is that you can send mail as different accounts from Gmail as well. To do this, just go to the Accounts tab in Gmail’s settings and under “Send mail as” you can add your other accounts, Gmail or not—though if you’re replying to a message, Gmail will automatically reply from the address the original message was sent to.
In Google Calendar, this is a bit simpler—if you have, say, a separate Gmail account with a calendar tied to that instead (say, a work calendar), you can easily consolidate that with your main Gmail account by going to Settings > Calendars and clicking “Share this calendar” for the ones you want to view on your main account.
Tweak Your Webapp for Everything It’s Worth
There are a few other things that webapps just don’t always give you, but they usually try and stay on top of things. In your Google webapps, be sure to check the Labs section for features that haven’t made their way to the full version, like drag-and-drop, custom shortcuts, and lots of other preference-tweaking awesomeness.
Beyond features that are pseudo-built in to webapps through Labs, you can tweak some settings in your browser to give you the experience you desire. For example, if you prefer (or find yourself in a specific situation where you need) that comfortable 3-pane view in your email client, you might try pulling up the iPad version of Gmail on your computer. Similarly, you can squeeze lots of extra options out of webapps with extensions like our own Gina Trapani’s Better Gmail (forFirefox or this unofficial version for Chrome), Better GReader (for Firefox), and other such userscripts (Userscripts.org is a great place to look for these). The possibilities are pretty much endless.
When you break it down, the benefits of dedicated desktop clients are slowly going away. With things like Gears, HTML5, and AJAX powering up modern browsers, all the features we expect from native clients can be found on the web—so if you’re still tied to your 10 clients all running at once, close them up for a while and give the web a shot. You might find that your bias against webapps isn’t necessary anymore.
Got any other tips for getting the most out of your webapps—or any other gripes about client-side features that webapps don’t have? Let us know in the comments!