Last quarter my roommate’s computer blew up right in front of his face. No, the computer didn’t physically explode; however, the computer’s soul died that day and, along with it, everything on its little hard drive. Faced with a lack of a computer, my roommate instead used multiple computers on campus in order to complete assignments and papers. What was most interesting was that he was using the Docs & Spreadsheets service from Google.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets is known as a web application, which means that the program is accessed exclusively through the web browser and must be connected to the Internet in order for it to work. At its core, Google Docs & Spreadsheets is a free word processor and spreadsheet program. It saves in Microsoft Word and Excel file formats, which makes it an alternative for the ridiculously overpriced Microsoft Office.

I’ve been testing it out for a couple of weeks and I’ve fallen in love with it. I think students whose parents don’t bankroll them should check it out. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages of using Google Docs & Spreadsheets.

A big advantage is that documents are saved onto Google servers, so that it can be accessed on any computer with Internet access. The service also automatically saves periodically and keeps all previous revisions. In addition, the documents can be saved in a variety of different file formats, including .doc, .rtf, .pdf, .html, etc. The most unique feature is collaboration, which allows other people beside the original creator of a document to make simultaneous changes to a single document. Google Docs & Spreadsheets color codes the changes according to each user. The interface, however, is definitely not as full featured as Office, but it has most of the core features necessary to write an essay or a research proposal.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets does require a free Google account and it is tightly integrated with all of the other services that they provide, including the popular Gmail service. In fact, I have personally been writing the Tech Bytes columns on Google Docs &Spreadsheets and sending them to my editor via Gmail. The biggest advantage for me is that I can go to the library, the UCen or the Humanities and Social Sciences Building computer labs and continue writing my incomplete articles.

Of course, every upside has a downside, and some of these downsides are obvious. For instance, the user needs to be connected to the Internet in order to access their files and use the service. However, Google will inevitably roll out a desktop companion application that will allow users to make changes to documents offline, and then have the online application update the files the moment the computer is connected to the Internet.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets is a pioneer in the new web applications platform. Due to the rapid explosion of the Internet, most desktop applications might become defunct and it is plausible that all programs will become web applications. There are even talks of how the desktop operating system will soon become obsolete. This can mean the end of “personal computers,” which will be replaced by the “online account” – reminds you of Google account doesn’t it?). Everything from your “my computer” to documents to pictures and games will be stored on servers and be accessed from a “portal computer.”

OK, so a portal computer is something I totally made up, but the concept is not too far from reality. With this portal computer, the only hardware components will consist of a screen, pointing device and keyboard, and Internet connectivity. Because the computations and hard drive will be accessed remotely, Internet connection will always be required.

Some people might be thinking that this won’t happen for a while. However, with services like Google Docs & Spreadsheets, the future of desktop applications will rapidly come to a halt and web applications will enjoy a spreading popularity.