On the Hunt for Great Web Apps

Posted on May 15, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, Mobile, Music + Videos, Office, Windows 10 with 38 Comments

On the Hunt for Great Web Apps

As part of an ongoing transition from Windows desktop applications to more portable solutions like web apps, I’ve started focusing on two key apps in my daily workflow. And it’s not going all that well.

Like many Windows users, I used to spend all my time in locally-installed desktop (Win32/.NET) applications that were difficult and time-consuming to install, hard to maintain, and in some cases very expensive. But the “mobile first, cloud first” world has changed everything, and I’ve started moving beyond these legacy applications to more modern replacements.

In many cases, these replacements are web apps. I use web-based email/contacts, calendar, and music services on my PC, for example, and like many I spend much of the day in a web browser as well. But I still use a few legacy desktop applications.

Some of them are now delivered in more modern ways. I install Microsoft Office 2016 through Office 365, and I download Adobe Photoshop Elements from the Windows Store.

Others, however, remain truly old-school. For example, I still use MetroTwit, which is no longer provided publicly or supported, so I keep the application in Dropbox, where I can sync it to my PCs.

My goal is be as efficient as possible when it comes to setting up a new PC and then working each day. And minimizing my exposure to these older applications is key. But it’s a process. A lengthy process.

Here, I’ll discuss just two of the desktop applications I’m trying to replace. One, Photoshop Elements, is a photo editor. And the other, MarkdownPad 2, is a text editor I use for writing. What I’d like to do, in each case, is find a web app that I can install to Windows use Chrome today. And then maybe using the Windows Store/Edge in the future. (I’d be OK with a Store app, but there are no examples of either.)

Easy, right?

Not exactly. Yes, anyone can Google something like “best web app for photo editing” or similar, of course. But the trick is actually using these solutions to determine whether they meet your needs. And like most of you, I bet, I do have specific needs.

I currently use two tools to edit graphics: Microsoft Paint and Adobe Photoshop Elements. Both tools are very familiar, as I’ve been using them every single day for many years.

Microsoft Paint is included with Windows 10, of course, and I can continue using this as I do now, for light edits, image repositioning after editing in Photoshop, and so on. It works well for what I need.

Photoshop Elements is trickier. I use this application to resize images, and to crop them into a very specific 16:9 aspect ratio. I also use this application’s Smart Fix feature and other quick adjustments to brighten and otherwise fix some of the duller source images I have to deal with. I probably use about 5 percent of the application’s functionality. But for me, it’s the crucial 5 percent.

The goal, then, is to replace Photoshop Elements, which, until recently, was a large and monolithic desktop application that I had to install from a NAS share on my home network after downloading the huge installer at purchase time. Now, thankfully, it’s a Windows Store app, which admittedly does partially address my issues. But it’s still pretty big. I’d like something lightweight. Preferably a web app that doesn’t require a lengthy install.

And I’m surprised to say that I’ve arrived at an answer: Pixlr Express has excellent image crop and resizing functionality that meets my needs. And it has an Auto Fix feature that, so far at least, seems to mimic the similar Photoshop tools nicely.

Using Chrome to add this web app to my desktop, I’m mostly pleased with the results. The only issue is that you get ads if you resize the window beyond the default square shape. I’d like to use this in a more expansive view, but those ads are not OK. Anyway, I’ll experiment with this solution on the road this week and see how it goes. So far so good.

Curiously, finding an acceptable text editor has not been as easy.

This won’t be an issue for most people, of course: Microsoft Word, part of Microsoft Office, is likely the right solution for most, and there are both mobile and desktop versions of the app available. For others, Google Docs, which works offline as a web app, would likely be fine as well.

But I don’t use a traditional word processor anymore. I use a Markdown editor, which lets me write in plain text using the Markdown markup language. (It’s sort of like HTML, but is even simpler.) I switched to Markdown less than two years ago because I need to use it for Windows 10 Field Guide and it didn’t make sense for me to switch between different writing tools. And I’ve grown to really like it.

But I’m keen to replace MarkdownPad 2 because the app is no longer updated or supported, and because it requires me to carry around a very specific version of a supporting developer library, so that it can work correctly in Windows 10. It’s time-consuming to install, and then I have to make a bunch of manual edits to the default stylesheet to accommodate the high DPI displays I use. (Hey, I said my needs were particular.)

The most obvious solution is to find another native Windows application (or a Store app), and I’ve spent more time than I care to admit researching this. I sort of like something called Typora, but the reality is, MardownPad is still better, and it provides a neat two-pane view—with Markdown on the left and a live HTML preview on the right—that Typora lacks. (There are many more Markdown editors on the Mac, go figure, than on Windows. That doesn’t help, as I use Windows.)

So I’ve also researched web-based Markdown editors, of which there are many. Most are terrible. Some are OK. One, called StackEdit, is excellent.

StackEdit provides that two-pane view I like so much. It exports to PDF with the document outline (table of contents) intact, which I need for the book. It is, in fact, nearly perfect.

There’s just one thing holding me back: StackEdit doesn’t work with the local file system, which is how I normally work with documents. And it doesn’t work with OneDrive, which is how I store most of my (non-book) documents. It does integrate with Dropbox, however, which would work with the book.

I know. Complicated.

For now, this issue makes StackEdit, and probably any web-based Markdown editor, a non-starter. Importing and exporting to disk is not ideal or efficient. And I’m not willing to switch entirely to Dropbox (or to Google Drive, which StackEdit also supports).

So one for two ain’t bad, as they say.

But this experience helps to explain the issues many will have when switching between productivity solutions. And that’s true whether the switch is between different desktop applications, from desktop to UWP or web app, or whatever. It’s probably the main reason most people simply stop trying. This kind of change is hard.

And it’s not just text and photo editing: I really need to figure out a new Twitter client. I’ve hated them all, frankly, but as the service picks up new features, MetroTwit gets left further and further behind.

But that is a story for another day.


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