Microsoft joins merging worlds

The differences between online and offline computing are dissolving as software companies begin to merge the look and features of desktop programs and web applications.

In the past week, Microsoft has launched a new desktop e-mail program - Windows Live Mail -- that resembles its online service, while introducing software that allows developers to make offline-capable versions of online applications.

Its moves follow similar initiatives by Google, Adobe and Mozilla, the developer of the Firefox web browser.

Desktop software, such as Microsoft's Word processor in Windows, and web applications, such as Google's g-mail e-mail service, each have their advantages.

A desktop program can use the computer's hard drive to store data, including large multimedia files, and take full advantage of its 3D graphics capabilities.

Web applications do not require lengthy installation processes and the software is seamlessly updated. Users' data are held on remote servers that make them accessible from any computer with an internet connection, also allowing others to share and collaborate.

Microsoft's new Sync Framework enables synchronisation of online and offline data to resolve any differences in files as programs are developed that store data in both environments.

Zoho, a web applications provider, has introduced a "go offline" button to its browser-based word processor, Zoho Writer. The button saves documents locally and is an implementation of Google Gears, an offline technology. Google is expected to use Gears to offer offline functionality for web applications. Microsoft's Silverlight and Adobe's Air technologies allow online applications to run independently of the browser. Mozilla's Prism technology strips away browser furniture to make services look like desktop applications.

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