Many applications that do few things or a few applications doing everything?

To follow up on my previous post about the differences between browser plugins, web interfaces and desktop applications, here is another post about my current rethinking of computer habits.

In fact, I started writing this post a couple of months ago, when I decided to move back to using Apple Mail as my main e-mail application again. I had used Mail for a few years when I decided to test out Thunderbird last year. The most important reason for the change was the poor search functionality in Mail. True, the search function is fast, but it is very limited if you are looking for specific things. Thunderbird 3 has an improved search function with a very nice calendar view, so this seemed very tempting. Besides functionality, choosing Thunderbird over Mail was also an ideological one, since I wanted to try out using free software for all my main desktop application needs. More about that another time.

Unfortunately, Thunderbird just didn’t feel snappy enough. I am not sure if the application really is that much slower to work with than Mail, but at least it felt like that. And while I love the search functionality, it also feels too slow to work with. But rather than moving straight back to Mail, I decided to make a detour around Opera. Luckily, switching back and forth between e-mail clients is no hazzle at all when using IMAP, as compared to POP.

I used to use Opera for e-mails back in the days when MS Windows was my main OS, but hadn’t tried it in many years. The really nice thing about Opera is how they manage to put all sorts of things into one single application: browser, e-mail client, RSS reader, web server, ftp, bittorrent, widgets, presentations, etc. Even with all that stuff packed in it feels like a fast application to work with.

But, doing everything with Opera for a few weeks led me to the techno-philosophical question: is it better to use many applications that do few things or few applications that do many things?

In one way I really want to like Opera. But after working with it for a few weeks I am not fully satisfied. While it is certainly compelling to have one program that can do it all, and even sync it all between multiple computers, it is also dangerous.

For example, for a while I have tried to not open my e-mail application before lunch. My brain works best in the morning, so I try to set aside some quality research time in the mornings. For this I often need a web browser, but not an e-mail client. Using Opera for both just doesn’t work.

Another thing that I always think could be very useful, is to read RSS-feeds within the same program that I read e-mails. However, even though this is possible in Opera (and in Mail and Thunderbird), I have never really been comfortable with the combination. I guess it is because reading RSS-feeds is like reading a newspaper or magazine. It is “passive” in the sense that I am only receiving information. Checking e-mail, on the other hand, is an active process where I delete, reply, forward etc. Again, I realize that it is actually quite nice to have separate applications handling these quite different activities. Another reason for this is that I have grown so used to NetNewsWire (which also syncs nicely with the iPhone), a dedicated application that is functionality-rich, yet super-snappy to work with.

The same goes for many other things I am doing during the day, e.g. taking notes (Journler), handling to-do lists (Things), etc.

So my conclusion is that I prefer having separate, dedicated applications for each of the different tasks I am doing.  While, it is possible to get it all in one (e.g. Opera or Firefox loaded up with add-ons), I really prefer my many small programs doing their little things really well.

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alexarje

Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.