Using distant software

Computer users at home can access programs on hosted servers instead of buying them

Plugged In

March 15, 2007|By The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS --Computer users can start thinking outside the box.

Traditionally, if you wanted to use a new software application, you had to drive to a store and buy a boxed version of the product or download the entire program off the Web and install it on your machine.

But that model is being replaced with a concept known alternately as "hosted software" or "software as a service." You don't buy or download the entire program; instead, you go to a Web site, log in, and access the program's functionality through that online portal.

You don't have to install the software on your PC because it's already installed on the software maker's servers, and you're just accessing the server.

With nearly 60 percent of U.S. households expected to have high-speed Internet access by the end of this year, opening a Web site is getting to be as fast as double-clicking an icon on your desktop.

The latest example of this trend is the recent announcement by Adobe Systems Inc. that it will make a streamlined version of its popular Photoshop program available free online as a hosted program in the next several months.

Adobe's flagship desktop version of Photoshop sells for $650.

While Photoshop is the biggest recent addition to the portfolio of hosted programs available to home users, it is far from the only one.

Last year, Google Inc. introduced its Docs & Spreadsheets program.

This free service lets you create traditional documents and spreadsheets and then save them in a variety of file formats, including those used by Microsoft Corp.'s popular Word and Excel programs.

So if you need to create or open a Word document, you don't need to buy a copy of Word from Microsoft and install it on your computer.

You can just sign up for a free Google account, and create and access your documents through the online portal.

And this is going to be a big year for online income-tax preparation.

Spokeswoman Julie Miller of Intuit Inc., the company that makes the TurboTax software, said 14 million units of TurboTax were sold last year, and nearly half of those were from people who used some version of the Web-based software.

"So we were pretty close to 50-50 last year," Miller said. "This year, we fully expect to see the tipping point of more Web units than desktop units."

In fact, sales of the online, Web-hosted versions of TurboTax grew 60 percent last year, while sales of the traditional desktop software grew less than 10 percent.

"The Web gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of product lineup," she said. "It allows us to price and merchandise products in a multitude of ways."

Technology analyst Rob Enderle pointed out that businesses have been using hosted software programs for years, but that it's taken longer for home Internet connections to catch up.

"Now, with these next-generation networks coming in, particularly the fiber-based next-generation networks, you've got enough network speed that you can make a number of these things work fast enough," he said.

Dallas-based market research firm Parks Associates recently estimated that the number of households in the United States with cutting-edge fiber-optic Internet connections will grow from 3 million this year to 18 million by the end of 2011.

Jeff Wacker, a futurist with Electronic Data Systems Corp., said that fiber-optic connection speeds will increase, allowing more software programs to migrate online.

And consumers are likely to embrace that trend, he said, since upgrades, updates and patches will be seamlessly applied by the software makers.

"It's getting tough to maintain all of those software pieces on your home PC," Wacker said. "With software as a service, you don't have to do that."

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