Online tools and applications

11 januari 2010

What are web applications?

Modern web browsers have surprising capabilities, including running computer programs. It is no longer necessary to install individual programs on every computer for word processing, image processing or managing a bibliographical database. So-called ‘thin clients’ or web applications can run these tasks from Internet Explorer, Firefox or another browser.

Why is this useful?

If, for example, you are at a congress abroad and wish to review a number of documents, all you have to do is open your online word processor on any computer and read the documents. Wherever you are in the world, you will always have your documents, images and bibliography to hand. Furthermore, it is no longer necessary to make personal backups of your files, although the option is still available, of course. Moreover, most such office environments allow you to invite others to contribute to and edit your document (you can trace such changes and accept or reject them at your discretion). Such software is known as groupware. This will save you the trouble of distributing these documents to several individuals and the confusion that this sometimes causes. Another advantage is that most web applications can be used free of charge for non-commercial purposes.

Is there a catch?

Unfortunately there is, but whether it will affect you depends on yourself. The configuration of these services requires some time. Often, you will need to create a user account (for example a Google or Adobe account) before you can edit and save documents. Very occasionally you may come across a suspect site – a site that promises a lot but delivers very little, in the meantime requiring your e-mail address or other personal information. Major providers such as Google and Adobe have – following a great deal of criticism – modified their conditions of use so that they now guarantee confidentiality of user information. However, the golden rule for using the internet remains: Use your head! If you are suspicious, ask an expert before doing anything.

Below we have described a number of applications that we consider useful to historians. Most of these applications are relatively new, which means that they will undergo changes in the coming years. Please contact us if this list is inaccurate or incomplete.

The applications

Research and collaboration environments

Mendeley is an environment developed by German researchers to bring together academic researchers and to facilitate collaboration on academic publications. It combines a website (a kind of ‘academic Facebook’) with a program (compatible with Windows, Macintosh and Linux) that researchers can use to share their bibliographies, projects and articles with colleagues on the internet. Although the project is still in the development phase, it is already proving to be a promising application, thanks also to its open structure.

Office environments (word processors, spreadsheets)

Google Documents is the most commonly used online office environment today. You can import and export Word and Excel files, edit them and save them on the Google server. Strengths: large and stable company behind it; groupware functionality; integration with other Google services (Google Mail, Google Calendar, Picasa); htm export; works fine on older, slower computers • Weaknesses: interface not particularly appealing or intuitive; unsuitable for editing complex spreadsheets; limited layout functionality; support service is rather slow and not available in Dutch.

Buzzword is also compatible with Word documents and has much better layout functionality than Google Documents. Another of Buzzword’s strengths is the user-friendly interface. This application also has more groupware functionality and better options for using footnotes, making this word processor more suitable for academic texts than its competitor. An Adobe account is required to use the program, but you will need an Adobe account for Photoshop Express anyway (see below). Strengths: Interface; image processing in documents; groupware functionality; annotation; ease of use • Weaknesses: Uses a Flash application, requiring a plug-in; unsuitable for older, slower computers; no Dutch version available (but does have a Dutch spellchecker).

Presentation software

Sliderocket is a very versatile program and the resulting presentations are as good as those made with Powerpoint, or perhaps even better. Presentations can be made and edited online free of charge and then shared with others. A disadvantage is that you have to be online to show your presentation, unless you pay for a subscription which includes an offline player (only available for Windows). However, you can get around this by taking a free temporary subscription, downloading the player and then running your presentations. A big advantage of Sliderocket is that it creates relatively small files in comparison with the huge files that Powerpoint sometimes makes. Strengths: graphically attractive presentations; a large variety of examples and templates; small file size; good visualization of tables and graphs • Weaknesses: subscription required to use the offline player; account required; Flash application (thus plug-in required).

Image processing is very suitable for simple image processing (scaling, resizing and cropping images). The site also loads very fast and you can convert files between .jpg and .png, .bmp and .gif. Your file remains on the server for an hour. You do not need to login and the service is free of charge.

The most extensive application for online image processing at present is probably Photoshop Express. You will need an Adobe subscription before you can use it (you can also use this subscription for Buzzword – see above). There is relatively little functionality in comparison with the ‘standard’ Photoshop, but it is definitely good enough for simple image processing. Strengths: supports many file formats; supports large image processing (up to 3000 pixels wide); compatible with Picasa and Flickr • Weaknesses: fast computer required, very limited in comparison with the Photoshop desktop application.

A promising new application is the Finnish Sumopaint. This program is also based on the Photoshop user environment but is much faster than Photoshop Express. There is an optional subscription for saving images to a Sumo account, but this is not essential. Strengths: fast; no subscription required • Weaknesses: only limited export functionality (.jpg and .png); no layered files.

In addition to its image processing functionality, Aviary ambitiously intended to offer tools to graphic designers such as a page layout application. These tools may yet come, but in the meantime the makers have focused primarily on image processing, offering four ‘modules’: Phoenix (photo editing), Peacock (a ‘visual laboratory’), Toucan (for creating colour palettes) and Raven (for creating line drawings). A paid subscription is required to use Raven. Aviary is clearly still under development, however, out of all the online applications we have seen, the Phoenix module best approaches the functionality of the Photoshop desktop application. Strengths: functionality; attractive and functional user environment • Weaknesses: will not work on an older computer; the quality of the modules varies.


Bibme is completely free of charge (although you can make a donation to help keep the site going) and is intended for both academics and school pupils. Entering bibliographic data is simple and can be done manually or via a ‘scan’. You can use one of several standard formats for exporting data (such as APA and Chicago MoS), and the data can then even be imported into other programs (such as Endnote) if required. The organization behind the website is non-commercial which means the Bibme environment is almost entirely free of advertising and other visual distractions. Strengths: good data entry and search functionality; few visual distractions; use of standard formats; clear manual • Weaknesses: takes some getting used to; many actions require use of the mouse.

By contrast, the biggest disadvantage of EasyBib is the huge amount of visual distraction. This website is less geared towards academics; however, it does offer useful search functionality, for example for ISBN and ISSN codes. Strengths: fast; standard import and export formats; good search functionality • Weaknesses: visual distraction; complex user environment; not primarily tailored to academics.

Other applications

Diaries. Google Calendar requires a Google account (which is free), as does Google Documents, and offers lots of functionality. We use it ourselves for the DWC diary. You can keep your diary and synchronize it with Outlook or iCal (Mac), for example. You can also share diaries to make group appointments and plan recurring appointments. An alternative is Airset, which aims to offer a complete office environment in which projects can be coordinated, diaries kept up to date, files  stored, etc.

Timelines. Using Timetoast you can create timelines and share them with others. Although you can insert text and images, the layout functionality is limited. A subscription is required but is free of charge.

Whiteboards, diagrams and ‘Mindmaps’. Skrbl offers little more than a surface for drawing on – however, anybody can contribute to it. Drawings can be hidden from unwelcome viewers at an extra cost. You can use Project Draw to construct online diagrams for free, either entirely from scratch or using the example libraries. You can then save the diagram on your computer or on a server. Mindomo is a good – and extensive – solution for creating mindmaps (associative diagrams) which also offers a large library of examples. You can also try Mind42 for simple and shareable mindmaps.

Surveys. Surveymonkey allows you to take surveys online, analyse the results and export them, for example to SPSS. Even complex questionnaires are no problem with this application. Various types of questions and question lists can be created and the free version has few limitations. Invitations to participate in surveys can be sent by e-mail or integrated (embedded) in a website. The paid version is free of advertisements.

Printing tools. Using Printwhatyoulike you can print website pages. Although this may not sound particularly revolutionary, the application does let you remove certain parts of the site that you do not wish to print. Vectormagic converts bitmap images such as photos into line drawings (useful if you want to modify a diagram that you have only in jpg format, for example).

Word clouds. Wordle is a tool for making ‘word clouds’: images that display the most common words in a text by resizing them in proportion to their frequency. This is a very useful tool for determining where the semantic emphasis of a text lies.

Credits and further information

The original version of this list was based to a large extent on an article by Kramer, König and Van Kruysbergen, describing how web applications compete with desktop applications, in the January-February 2009 edition of the computer technology magazine  c’t (Dutch title: Nooit meer installeren. Webtoepassingen, concurreren met lokale programma’s). Another useful site for applications for historians is the Center for History and New Media of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, USA.