Trying to Be Better

At Being Connected
Is a Waste of Time
By VAUHINI VARA
April 9, 2008
Silicon Valley types have been telling me for years that the Internet is renderi
ng desktop software obsolete.
If only my computer had gotten the memo.
I decided to test the software-is-obsolete premise by going for a week without t
he desktop programs installed on my computer, such as Microsoft's Word and Outlo
ok, and Adobe's Acrobat Reader. One exception: the Firefox browser I use to go o
nline. (BlackBerry, I arbitrarily decided, was allowed.)
On the Friday before the experiment began, I pasted all of the documents I thoug
ht I'd need into an email that I sent myself. There. I was ready. Or so I though
t.
It began so nicely. Driving to a movie on Saturday, my friend Will played a song
by the Decemberists, "Yankee Bayonet." It's a beautiful song. I have it downloa
ded on my computer and wanted to listen to it when I got home. But my desktop-so
ftware ban meant no iTunes.
No big deal.
he name of a
and listened
I'd have to

I visited the Hype Machine, a search engine that lets you type in t
song to find music blogs to stream, free. I typed "Yankee Bayonet"
to the song all afternoon. This wasn't so bad, I thought. But soon,
do something about email. That's when things turned ugly.

My morning routine didn't change much. Every day before getting out of bed, I wa
ke up, roll over, put on my glasses, grab my BlackBerry and start reading, then
responding to or deleting, emails. I continue this process on the train to work,
so that by the time I get to the office, I typically have just three or four em
ails left.
I started Monday in this way, but when I got to work, instead of firing up Micro
soft Outlook, I opened a browser tab and used my RSA token (a keychain providing
security passwords) to log in to my email remotely, using the Outlook Web Acces
s service that Microsoft provides.
My company has me on the 2003 version of the service, and from the start it gave
me a headache. It was incredibly slow. The Courier-font formatting made me grit
my teeth. I got kicked out and had to log in every 15 minutes or so. Because of
my desktop-software ban, I wasn't allowed to use Google Desktop Search (free so
ftware that lets you sort through mail and files using keyword searches), so I c
ouldn't quickly read my email. Over the week, it piled up. It's not that I could
n't deal with it; it's just that I really, really didn't want to.
Elsewhere, the no-software rule was an exercise in resourcefulness -- and patien
ce.
On Tuesday, my friend Steve emailed me a chapter of his memoir-in-progress in PD
F format. Instead of opening it with the Adobe Acrobat software on my PC, I open
ed it in HTML in my browser -- an option Gmail offers. But when I tried to print
, only the first page came out. I checked my printer settings and tried again. A
gain, one measly page slid out. Then I remembered a free document-sharing servic
e called Scribd that I'd come across. I downloaded the PDF to my desktop, upload
ed it to Scribd and hit a "print" button. The screen froze for a few seconds, bu
t the printer spit out all 32 pages.

On Thursday, ComScore, the Web-tracking firm, emailed me a spreadsheet I had req
uested, showing traffic to various sites. I downloaded it to my desktop, but ins
tead of using Microsoft Excel, I had to upload it to a free online spreadsheet s
ervice. First, I tried the Google Docs service, but half the spreadsheet -- the
part with the data -- was missing. So, I tried a service called Zoho, which told
me the spreadsheet's file name was invalid. Finally, I turned to another servic
e called ThinkFree. It worked.
Much of my job has to do, of course, with writing. During the week of the experi
ment, I tried various free services for creating documents, including Google Doc
s, Adobe's Buzzword, ThinkFree and Zoho. Each had its benefits. I adored how Buz
zword rendered text on the screen. All offered the basic features I needed to ge
t the articles done. (I knew that they wouldn't have all the functionality of Mi
crosoft Word, but this didn't bother me.)
When I work with one editor on story drafts, we each highlight some sections and
cross out others to show our changes. Pasting these documents into an email in
Outlook Web Access would wipe out all that formatting, so I used a neat feature
in Google Docs that lets you share documents via email and preserves special for
mats. This worked well, though one story got lost. I ended up using Outlook Web
Access to email it the old-fashioned way, Courier font and all.
For the most part, I had abandoned Outlook Web Access by the end of the week. In
stead of cleaning out my inbox via BlackBerry every morning, I did this several
times a day. I set my BlackBerry to vibrate and resorted to using it for nearly
all my email. That's where things were on Thursday, when another editor walked b
y my desk and found me hunched over my BlackBerry, thumbs sore and eyes strainin
g.
"How's the connected-only life?" he asked.
I wanted to vent about every little inconvenience I'd encountered, from sluggish
email to disappearing spreadsheets. But after a week of BlackBerry conversation
s, I had learned to be succinct.
"Not great," I said.
Write to Vauhini Vara at vauhini.vara@wsj.com