Why I use as few Mac apps as possible

My 11-inch MacBook Air is the pride of my technological life, an indispensible tool: I write stories and columns on it daily; I edit photos and podcasts, track my schedule, and even do the vast majority of my TV watching on it. It’s lightweight enough that I can carry it everywhere, and powerful enough that I can use it to do everything I need.

But in certain respects, I admit, it is also little more than a very well-appointed Chromebook.

Now this isn’t Apple’s fault, nor is the fault of all those thousands of app developers who spend their careers coming up with clever ways to make your Mac even more useful than it is out of the box. This is simply a function of the choices I’ve made: My name is Joel, and I’m an app-o-phobe. Give me Web apps any day.

Which makes me an outlier among my Macworld colleagues, admittedly: We’re all on a relentless quest to perfect our machines and make them near-unconscious manifestations of our working wills—it’s just that buddies like Lex Friedman tend to do it by adding software to their computers instead of stripping it out. Lex is constantly suggesting something new for me to try: Adium, Propane, Arsenic, and I’m fairly sure that only one of those things is actually poison. He’s trying to make things easier for me.

Maybe I’m simply old, but “easier” to me doesn’t mean adding new threads of information or cluttering my Dock with a thousand bouncing icons demanding my attention now-now-now. I’m just not a big believer in multitasking, and my stripped-down approach to my digital life keeps me from trying to do too much at once.

So I write in Google Docs. I often edit photos using the free online version of Photoshop. I keep my tasks listed in Any.Do. I instant-message as much as possible using Google Talk—though I have enough colleagues off the Google reservation that I sometimes have to use iMessage to stay in touch. I can’t do everything on the Web, but I can do an awful lot.

Why?

• IT’S CHEAPER: Yes, I’m a cheapskate, but lot of apps cost money, unless they’re ad-supported. The online offerings generally—though not always—come for free.

There’s always a danger that you’ll get what you pay for, of course, but the truth is: I don’t need word processing software any more advanced than what Google Docs provides. When I edit a picture in Photoshop online, there are not many options beyond some minor cropping and color-correcting—but I’m not an advanced enough photographer to do much more than that anyway. Free-and-cheap gets the job done, albeit without bells and whistles.

• IT’S EASIER: Free Web apps are pretty much aimed at the lowest-common-denominator of consumer. This might be a problem if I routinely did anything more complicated than minor HTML editing, but that’s about as far as I need to go. (And yes, I do miss the days when you could switch views on Google Docs and see the HTML coding on the piece you just wrote.) Today, most of the Web-based apps I find are pretty self-explanatory. I’m capable of learning new things when necessary; but if the simple way gets the job done, why not use it?

• IT’S LESS CLUTTER: As I mentioned before, I don’t have a million bouncing icons in my Dock. I check my email when I check it; same for Facebook and Twitter. Given the frenetic times we live in, I do all of these things several times an hour, but doing it on my terms at least makes me active instead of reactive. And that means I can perform those actions in a natural flow of work, instead of interrupting the typing of this sentence—excuse me, pardon me—to go find out right now why somebody else wants my attention. It’s just a few minutes of delay; somehow the world carries on, yet I feel less overwhelmed by all the streams of information. Generally, I have two Mac windows open throughout the day—one for Safari, one for iMessage. And I rarely let my Safari window grow to more than eight tabs. Otherwise it’s all too much.

Now, the way I live my Mac-based life is different from how I live on iOS, where apps are king. And I still can’t do everything I want using Web-based apps. To have and record a good phone conversation, Skype is still the way to go. When I edit that conversation into a podcast, there’s nothing on the Web like Garageband for simple-but-effective audio editing.

What’s more, the increasing ties between iOS and OS X have me reconsidering my old ways: It might be easier and as effective to use the native “Reminders” tool instead of Any.DO. The Notification Center gives me one place to go look at all my communications instead of opening three or more Safari windows.

But the truth is, Web apps will probably remain the center of my computing experience. My MacBook Air is way better than a Chromebook, but my relatively monkish digital life is what helps me use the better equipment more effectively. My stripped-down existence is why I can be maximally productive.

Product mentioned in this article

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  • Apple MacBook Air Notebook

    If what you want out of your Mac laptop is the best combination of speed and price, the MacBook Air’s not for you. But if the specs that matter most to you are light weight and small size, the MacBook Air

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