Web apps are all the rage, but offline apps still have their place. Whether you want better offline support or you just want to keep your sensitive data on your PC, there’s a free desktop app that can replace your web-based productivity app.
We’ve looked at web-based alternatives to desktop apps, and now we’ll do the opposite. Here are some solid — and completely free — offline desktop alternatives to popular web apps.
Be sure to perform regular backups if you store your only copies of important data locally. You wouldn’t want to lose it all when your hard drive inevitably bites the dust.
Email – Gmail, Outlook.com, Yahoo! Mail
Development on offline email programs has slowed down, but there are still solid options. These programs will allow you to access your email from your desktop computer, entirely offline. Modern email accounts use IMAP by default, where your email stays stored online, but you can also configure your email client to use POP3 and set your email service to delete messages as soon as they’re downloaded, if you would rather just store your email history on your computer.
For offline email, we recommend Mozilla Thunderbird. It’s no longer being actively developed with new features, but it’s a solid, stable email program with all the features you would likely need. Additional features can be added via add-ons, just as with Firefox.
You may also be interested in Windows Live Mail, which is still available as part of Microsoft’s Windows Essentials (formerly known as Windows Live Essentials) package. It’s also no longer being actively developed, but it’s a free email client and is a big improvement over Microsoft’s earlier Outlook Express software. Of course, if you have Microsoft Office, you can also use Microsoft Outlook as your email program.
Calendar – Google Calendar, Outlook Calendar
There are still several solid programs that will allow you to store your calendar events and tasks entirely offline. If you use Mozilla Thunderbird, try the Mozilla Lightning extension. It’s the successor to the standalone Mozilla Sunbird calendar application, and adds calendar and task support to Thunderbird. Lightning integrates into Thunderbird, so you have your email, calendar tasks, and to-do items in one place.
If you’re looking for something a bit prettier that stays ever-present on your desktop, try Rainlendar. It displays calendar events and tasks as very customizable desktop widgets.
Windows Live Mail also has integrated calendar features. If you’re using it, take look at its integrated calendaring features. Of course, Outlook also has calendar features, so if you’re a Microsoft Office user that may be the most powerful option available to you.
Office – Google Docs, Office Web Apps
Google Docs and now Microsoft’s Office Web Apps have become popular for offering free office features that store your documents, so you can access them from any computer or mobile device. Even Microsoft Office is moving online, with Office 2013 defaulting to saving documents to Microsoft SkyDrive rather than your local computer.
There are still powerful, actively developed free office applications that can be used offline. The most powerful free office suite is LibreOffice, which includes document, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, math, and even database features. It’s a more actively developed fork of the project known as OpenOffice. This free option has the best compatibility for viewing and editing Microsoft Office-format documents.
If you just want to write quick text documents, you may want to take a look at Abiword — it’s very simple and lightweight. Don’t expect advanced features or compatibility with complicated Microsoft Office documents, but do expect lightweight, simple document editing.
For all its default SkyDrive and online features, even the latest versions of Microsoft Office can also be used offline. Microsoft Office isn’t free, but it merits an honorable mention here — if only because so many people already have access to it.
Photo Management – Facebook Photos, Flickr, Google+ Photos
Web-based photo services allow for the easiest sharing and ensure average users will have their photos backed up, so they’ve become increasingly standard. However, there are still solid offline photo management solutions.
Google’s Picasa desktop application is still a high-quality desktop photo management application that works entirely offline. It’s a great option, at least until Google decides to end support for the desktop version of Picasa in a future spring cleaning. It can import photos from a digital camera, perform basic photo editing, and help you organize your photos.
Microsoft also still offers their Photo Gallery program as part of the Windows Essentials suite of desktop applications.
Password Management – LastPass
LastPass may locally encrypt your passwords and other private data before storing it online, but some people are more comfortable without the online-syncing part of the equation. If you would like an offline password manager, use KeePass. It’s a powerful, completely open-source password manager that can lock your password database with encryption — you’ll have to enter a master password each time you use it. It has no online-syncing features, so you’ll have to figure out how to back up and move your database around on your own.
There are mobile apps so you can access your KeePass database from your smartphone, too — you’ll have to copy the database to your smartphone manually, however.
Instant Messaging – Google Hangouts (Google Talk and GChat), Facebook Messenger
Instant messaging programs are by their very nature online — the messages have to travel over the Internet, after all. However, if you used an online chat application like Google Talk, Facebook Messenger, or another service like AIM or Yahoo Messenger, the messages would be transmitted in clear-text online. They would likely be archived in an online service, as Google Talk messages are archived in Gmail.
If you would like to communicate in a more private way, you can use a desktop application that supports encrypted messages. Pidgin, along with the Pidgin-OTR plug-in, allows you to send encrypted messages from your desktop. You’ll need to communicate with someone else who also has the OTR plug-in installed, but if you both have the appropriate plug-in, you can send encrypted messages via the Internet. For example, use Pidgin-OTR over Google Talk and Google won’t keep an archive of your messages in Gmail — it won’t even be able to understand them. Only the computers having the conversation will be able to understand the messages. This ensures the contents of your chat history — and your chat logs, if you choose to keep chat logs — stay entirely offline on your computer — and your conversation partner’s computer, of course.
The sad reality is that offline desktop programs are seeing their development support vanish. Mozilla has ended development on new features for Thunderbird, Microsoft will no longer be working on their Windows Essentials suite, and we expect Google to pull support for the desktop version of Picasa within the next few years. Even Microsoft Office is moving online with Office Web Apps and saving to SkyDrive by default. Most active development is going to web apps or online-enabled desktop apps. But if you want to fight the current, these should keep you swimming for a while.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 06/22/13