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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Comments (38)

38 responses to “On the Hunt for Great Web Apps”

  1. skane2600

    I don't get this claim that native Windows apps are hard to install and difficult to maintain. Some installers are very simple while others require more steps, but those with more steps are often setting basic configuration options that the user would otherwise have to set immediately after installation by hunting around in the menus. Many applications require zero effort to maintain while others may prompt you for an upgrade occasionally which can easily be ignored.


    Compare this to web apps where the vendor can change the way the app works at any time without the user having any control over it. Occasionally they offer a weak work around. Recently Google voice changed its interface to what a number of people consider to be inferior. Hidden in the menu for the revised app is a way to use the old interface but rather than reloading the page with the old interface, it opens a new tab and keeps the interface you don't want around in another tab.

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to skane2600:

      Consider portable Windows software, such as the packages available from portableapps.com and portablefreeware.com. There's a lot of Windows desktop/Win32 software which really doesn't require full installers. FWLIW, much of it works fine under wine under Linux.

      • skane2600

        In reply to hrlngrv:

        Yes, I've used them and they work fine. The point is that the installation method is usually a function of what the application does. For example, if you want to add a context menu item to the File Explorer to launch your app to process a particular file or folder, you have to write to the Registry.

        • hrlngrv

          In reply to skane2600:

          . . . if you want to add a context menu item to the File Explorer . . .

          You need to add the necessary DLL to the regisrty. Or perhaps just add some keys to HKCUClasses, which could be accomplished by merging a simple .REG file. It ain't hard, time-consuming or messy.

          It's a myth that desktop/Win32 software has to be messy to install. Yes, there's lots of crappy installers, written to Windows 95 or XP pre-SP specs still around. That doesn't mean all installers are necessarily crappy.

          I'll stipulate Centennial packaged software is more secure than unpackaged desktop software, but I figure Windows unpackaged desktop software run in a VM on a host system running an OS other than Windows is safer still.

  2. sportflier

    Paul, not that long ago I went looking for an alternative to MarkdownPad 2 and discovered MarkdownMonster by Rick Strahl (@RickStrahl). It is a fantastic markdown editor (a great improvement over MarkdownPad 2) and improvements / enhancements are very active right now.

  3. jimchamplin

    Try Appy Text in the store. It's by a Thurrott.com member. It has an IAP for full functionality but he offers a 30-day trial, so you can give it a shot.

  4. nbplopes

    Hi Paul, I'm not sure if you are looking for an full online only Web App or a Progressive App, meaning that it runs on all OS's (OSX, Windows, Linux).

    If that is the case try here:

    https://electron.atom.io/apps/?q=markdown

    EDIT: I suspect that all of them may be soon in the Windows Store now that is possible. Will see.

  5. rbwatson0

    .In reply to GeekWithKids:
    And this "version" of Pixlr is only available on mobile.


  6. rbwatson0

    Has anyone found a decent app or program that can replace the old Windows Live Picture Viewer?

  7. Wizzwith

    There's no shortage of good photo editing apps in the Windows store.  Check out Polarr Photo Editor.  It would be hard to miss if you search for photo editors in the store.  It is a prime example of how powerful and good Store/UWP apps can actually be.   Polarr will undoubtable fulfill your needs, while being lightweight and less complex than Photoshop.  I think it does pretty much everything Photoshop Elements does, but I can't say with 100% certainty as I use full-fat Photoshop and haven't used Elements in a few years/versions ago.  I use Polarr on the go, Photoshop/Lightroom at the desk.

    And Paul, it really sounds like you are someone who looked at the Windows Store 2 years ago and then never looked again, while still repeating the same old idea that it's a barren wasteland full of crappy toy apps.  That's really not the case anymore, there's a lot of good stuff there, and while it certainly doesn't have 100% coverage, it is getting better.   As someone who covers this stuff you seem to not be very aware of what's really available in the Store now.  You could do your readers a much better service by spending some time updating your view of the store and help people find good apps, rather than just giving it the old Eeyore.

    Polarr Pro: https://www.microsoft.com/store/apps/9nblggh1npnc

    Polarr free:  https://www.microsoft.com/store/apps/9nblggh6bgx8

  8. hrlngrv

    As an alternative, or a tangent (matter of perspective), try https://www.rollapp.com/, the free Premium trial. Lots of applications to choose from, including a markdown editor. From my perspective, this could easily be the future: recentralized computing, that is, accessing an online service with servers running desktop software remotely.

  9. Ian Gilham

    I'm using Visual Studio Code for Markdown editing but as a developer's editor it may be overkill for your needs. The two-pane side-by-side view is pretty good (Ctrl+Shift+P -> "Markdown: Open preview to the side").

  10. dsamuilov

    Paul, did you try MS Code with the (many) markdown plugins/add ons?

    It has plugins for each of the features you mentioned you need. While this is not a Store App, we should expect a release of MS Code in the store fairly soon. Especially considering that Win 10 S being out soon with devices. The only big difference I noted is the second screen preview would trigger to a browser (which you could tile on screen) by using a preview plugin/add on.

    Update: there's even a Leanpub add on.

  11. Narg

    I too try to keep my computing as portable and legacy proof as possible. That said, you have to realize it's not possible to be 100% this way, and I personally don't even recommend it. Not even close. Web apps work best for service provider solutions. E-mail is a great example, as is music/media. Too many things like media creation in your example with Adobe products should never go to web apps. The whole concept is just not made to facilitate that style of computing and it's needs. It all comes down to "horsepower" and web apps remain in lack of such. They will always be this way, as they should be due to security concerns and operability concerns. So local apps will need to stay. Having local apps is not an issue if they are well maintained and cloud supported too. So in a sense they are not 100% local either. Hybrid solutions often are the best, as I've recommended through out my 3 decades as a technical expert.

  12. Jeff Jones

    One online photo editor that surprised me was Photopea. It will open PSD files almost flawlessly and let you edit them without screwing up the document when it opens back in Photoshop proper. Plus it's HTML/WebGL instead of flash. I don't know if it has all the tools you want, but you might could request a specific feature. It does have healing brush, for example.

    https://www.photopea.com/


    Also, remember the website Alternativeto.net? Pretty handy site for finding alternative apps.

    http://alternativeto.net/software/autodesk-pixlr/


    Or the Markdown app, limited to online alternatives:

    http://alternativeto.net/software/markdownpad/?platform=online

  13. merill

    Agree with the other commenter about Paul being part of the problem when it comes to informing users to stay away from the Windows Store.


    Have you given Tweetium a real try? It is a much better client to MetroTwit and is not a memory hog. https://www.microsoft.com/en-au/store/p/tweetium/9wzdncrdglpv


  14. MacWinChromLine

    Here are a couple, one a Chrome App, and one a website. Both, I believe, work offline and let you save locally. Both have the split-screen you mention you like.


    Mado: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/mado/gmmlaihnodfojphcmjeemhaeajaldcdj?utm_source=chrome-ntp-icon


    Dillinger.io - links with OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google Drive.


    Also second checking out the Electron app page.



  15. mortarm

    >...find a web app that I can install to Windows use Chrome today.

    I'm sorry, Yoda, I didn't catch that.

  16. SGuergachi

    As a replacement for Markdown pad that does everything you want, I suggest Caret. https://caret.io/


    its a full featured markdowns editor with the half panel live preview and PDF export built in and tons more cool stuff.


    Been using it since version 1 and it's stable and nice to use.

  17. RobbeB32

    Maybe you can set up a Microsoft Flow or IFTT for automatically duplicating the Dropbox folder you use for StackEdit to OneDrive (which will in turn sync it to wherever you want, including local file system) and vice versa?

  18. bbold

    Great article! More like this, please :D

    Re: Store apps.. Microsoft really needs to 'bring home' the apps, especially since Windows 10 S is just around the corner. iTunes is a good start! I'm currently doing the opposite, trying to find Store replacements for apps. Any word on if Windows 10 S will be made available to download to those not using the Surface Laptop?

  19. SRLRacing

    In my experience web apps are a nightmare. Compatibility and reliability are hit or miss at best. In any given work day I will have to use Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and even Internet Explorer just to get the variety of web apps I am forced to use to interact with companies I work with to work. I am not convinced of this web app future and still believe native clients work the best.

  20. Ndbbm

    I miss the free flow of metro tweet, I've had ok luck with tweetium though.


    Jason

  21. Simard57

    Paul

    one of your forum posts https://www.thurrott.com/forums/microsoft/windows/thread/appy-text-a-modern-and-free-notepad-uwp-alternative

  22. John Spear

    Pixlr does seem to require Adobe Flash to be running. Not the best forward looking play, since all browsers are starting to disable Flash by default.

  23. Robin

    The Spotify web app is truly excellent. I like it better than the desktop app.

  24. curtisspendlove

    In reply to rufwork:


    "I'd also agree that it's strange that there are so many more quality Markdown editors on the Mac. Maybe a John Gruber halo effect? But after surveying what's out there in Windows, I came to the same conclusion: The cupboard's nearly bare."

    You know...it was strange to me at first when I switched primarily from Windows to OS X several years ago. But I've found over the last few years that, in general, Mac App developers tend to put massive amounts of care and tending in their apps.

    There are still a few clunkers...but man...so many good ones. Last year, after being less than impressed with the iPhone 7, I decided to try Android / Windows again. And, I just find myself missing all the good apps I love.

    I know that's not super helpful for anyone. But I've looked pretty hard to find a decent Markdown editor in Windows and Markdown Pad 2 was the only one I found too.

    That said, I hadn't found MarkUpDown before I gave up. I'd gladly pay 20 bucks for that thing, and I'm glad you're charging a sustainable rate for it. I think, that's one of the major mistakes most developers make (and yes, I know that it's hard to survive in the current "race-to-the-bottom" market).

    Until I saw your app, I just haven't found anything in the Windows world to compete with apps like:

    https://ulyssesapp.com

    http://marked2app.com

    I even considered trying to write something myself, but I haven't written a Windows app since the first revision of C# was launched.

  25. Travis

    The free Photoshop Express app does both things you mention for photos. While it is not a Web app it is in all app stores and very easy to use.

  26. brettscoast

    Very good post. Looks as though the hunt is going to take quite a bit longer. Your specific needs are quite varied because of your day to day job. I'm a bit surprised (not knowing the full feature set of word 2016) that the latest version of word which can be edited online in onedrive on the fly doesn't include a live HTML view.

  27. hrlngrv

    In reply to GeekWithKids:

    Did you read the comments on the page? The real Pixlr is by AutoDesk. The app in the Windows Store is, to be charitable, a knock-off by an effectively unknown 4th party.

    Substantial care is required to use the Windows Store without getting screwed. Great job of curating by MSFT, eh?

    • Narg

      In reply to hrlngrv:

      Why should Microsoft gimp otherwise good app writers? Curating is a fickle beast, and should be left to folks outside of Microsoft through suggestions for apps. If Microsoft were to cut too much out of their store, they'd limit the income of many developers, and themselves. App stores can be a mess, but that's the negativity of open markets. Just like if you'd want to buy an appliance you'd use the web or good old Consumer Reports to research. You should do the same with any app store.

      • hrlngrv

        In reply to Narg:

        If there were less, er, fertilizer and more plants in the Windows Store, then curating would be problematic. However, at the moment, there's an ocean of crap with some atolls of useful apps.

        Then semantics. Calling a walled garden an open market is inaccurate. Isn't part of the value offered by the Windows Store supposed to be MSFT getting rid of the smelliest crap? Or should unsophisticated users have the, er, opportunity to experience such apps as a learning exercise? Point is, I have lots of different markets I can go to for appliances, only one for UWP apps (if I had any interest myself).

        • Wizzwith

          In reply to hrlngrv:

          The curation in the app stores are to keep malware and other coding type violations out, not declare what apps are good or crappy.  One man's junk is another's treasure and all that.  As for IP violations, those are up to the rights holder to request takedowns.  This is true of Windows, Android, and Apple's app stores.  Apple has the most stringent rules, but that doesn't keep the thousands of fart apps out, and it's not supposed to.  Furthermore, the filters are never perfect, for example there are numerous examples of malware in the Google Play store, much less so on iOS, but it has happened (never heard of any malware in the Windows app store, but well, it's just a matter of time really).  But that doesn't mean the system isn't good, bad stuff might get through sometimes, but when it does, it can at least be removed quickly, and the filters get improved.

    • Wizzwith

      That link is for some old Windows Phone app.  Here is Pixlr by Autodesk, desktop UWP: https://www.microsoft.com/store/apps/9nblggh097zx

      Autodesk has a number of apps in the Store besides that and not sure why they would tolerate that Windows Phone one, unless it is by a third party they allowed, which could very well be the case. 

      It's also not abundantly clear what role Autodesk has with Pixlr... they have their name on the Pixlr app I linked to, but there is no mention of either on the respective web sites.  - Edit as robincapper pointed out it seems they sold off the app. 

  28. alensmith

    one more tool which surprised me is www.toolpic.com which is same like pixlr, but what surprised me is that it has all paid feature of pixlr tool in its free version. Do have a look

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