10 stars of 'cross-platformity'

At work or play, these 10 applications can be used across a variety of platforms

The Earth now houses more devices than people. That's simple math. Back in 2008 Gartner counted all the computers on our planet and got a number of 1 billion. Back then researchers also promised that by 2014 there would be 2 billion computers in use. Meanwhile, Cisco has predicted that mobile devices will outnumber people by the end of 2013 -- which means we'll be passing that milestone this year. Putting those figures together, you realize two things: There are already more computing devices than people, and the technocratic era is already in full play, while everyone's still waiting for it to come. And I haven't even brought in the statistics on robots yet.

Some people, because they are too young to use them, too old to care about them, or too poor to afford them, own no computers, no tablets and no smartphones. That can only mean that a lot of people own more than one device. You can take my word for that or head over to the nearest Starbucks, where you're sure to see someone reading on a Kindle, surfing the Web on a laptop and listening to music on a smartphone -- all at the same time. Of course, since you're reading this in Computerworld, you probably don't have to either take my word or drop by a Starbucks; there's a good chance you have more than one device yourself. Maybe it's the standard set of home PC/work PC/smartphone. Some people add a tablet or a laptop to this kit. But whatever set of hardware you have, each piece needs some software to enliven it. And that's where things get ugly. Because you have to remember how all of that software works on different platforms. And because if you create a file on your laptop and want to work with it on your Android phone, there's a possibility that the corresponding software won't be able even to open it. That's bad. I mean, that's really bad.

Does it have to be that way? No. In fact, more and more software developers are trying to provide a similar user experience across platforms. Mostly, such software accommodates arrangements like using a Windows PC at work, a Mac at home and an Android smartphone or tablet. Some also extends to the iOS used on iPhones and iPads. Here are several I have tried and recommend, to satisfy many basic and not-so-basic needs.

Business before pleasure, they say, so let me start with an application for office use. Kingsoft Office rates pretty well in what I call "cross-platformity," being available for Windows, Linux, iOS and Android. With the help of Kingsoft Office, you can create text documents (Kingsoft Writer), presentations (Kingsoft Presentation) and spreadsheets (Kingsoft Spreadsheets). The program is compatible with most common formats of Microsoft Office, like doc, dot, xls, rtf, txt, wps, etc. The application's interface is quite standardized, so you won't have any trouble with it no matter what OS you are used to.

Of course, one of the great tools for getting work done is the Internet. (Ironically, it's also a great tool for avoiding getting work done.) All devices come with a Web browser, but some people use those default browsers exactly once, to download their browser of choice. My favorites in the cross-platformity sweepstakes are Google Chrome and Firefox. They work on practically everything: Windows and Linux desktop, Macs and Android smartphones and tablets. Be aware, though, that the version of Chrome available for iOS is just a reskinned Safari and not the real deal.

Another indispensable work tool, which also has many uses for non-work activities, is B1 Free Archiver. B1 compresses files and thus saves space on your hard drive. That's very cool, especially if that drive is a small one on a smartphone. But this utility solves many other problems. I resort to B1 whenever I need to send several files via email or Skype -- the archiver packs them into one file so I don't have to attach all of them one by one. And with B1 Free Archiver, you can create password-encrypted archives and thus protect your private and sensitive data. The application is available on Windows, Linux, Mac and Android and also has an online version. It looks pretty alike on all platforms and at the same time adopts specific conventions and style of each of them.

We all have to open and read PDF documents now and then. There probably isn't any better way to do this than to equip your device with Adobe Reader. PDF documents are created with Adobe Acrobat, meaning Reader is a native utility. The software is available for Windows, Linux, Mac, iOS and Android. Its distinctive red-and-white interface is unlikely to be confused with anything else.

From PDFs, it's a short hop to images. A nice and absolutely free program called Fotor will help you to view and edit images stored on your computer or any other device. You can use Fotor on Windows, Mac OS X, iOS and Android. With Fotor, you can crop, rotate, resize, enhance colors and make collages. You can create collages and cards online as well, on Fotor.com.

All of what I've described so far is great, but after awhile, I need music. My preference is to party with two guitars, a drum set and a frontman, though I'll settle for a prosaic but decent music player. After rummaging great spaces of the Internet, I found one called Songbird. It works on Windows, Linux, Mac, iOS and Android. With Songbird, you can listen to music files of various formats, categorize them and create playlists. You can connect Songbird to your Facebook profile, and it will recommend artists, tell you about trending artists and more. You can also easily access your YouTube playlists and podcasts with the application.

When I want to sit back, relax and watch a movie, I need a video player. VLC Media Player is an open-source, cross-platform video player for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS. It plays video files from your computer, CDs, DVDs, VCDs and online streams and works with most popular video formats. In fact, you'll hardly find any audio/video file that VLC Media Player cannot open. It's a bright example of free but extremely high-quality software.

Now, let's say that a file you badly want to play is located on a torrent tracker. If you really want to get it, you will need a torrent client. Here the first prize goes to uTorrent, which works diligently on Windows, Mac and Linux. The program is really tiny and thus needs minimum system resources. With uTorrent, you can see and manage your downloads, for example, pausing them and resuming them later.

When it comes to keeping everything in order on your PC, tablet or smartphone, Evernote looks like a real find. This service helps you save snapshots from the Internet, photos and audio files; make notes; create to-do lists; organize collective work; and more. And the choice of OS/devices on which you can use Evernote is really amazing: Windows, Linux, MacOS, iOS and Android.

Dropbox rounds out our magnificent 10 list. This is software that can't do its job without being cross-platform. Dropbox is available for Windows, Linux, MacOS, Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Kindle Fire. And despite all the analogs that have appeared recently, Dropbox remains one of the most popular ways to synchronize information across devices and platforms. Dropbox not only syncs your files across all your devices but also saves them out on Dropbox.com. That means that if your computer suddenly blows up, you won't lose your information, since it is stored in the cloud. That, of course, raises concerns about privacy. To be on the safe side, you can use the aforementioned B1 Free Archiver and create a password-protected archive to store in the cloud.

During my ardent hunt for cross-platform apps, I've realized several things. First of all, a large portion of cross-platform software is free. I didn't intend to choose only free software; such a list formed naturally by itself. The second thing is that this software turned out to be of incredibly high quality. Indeed, we are seeing software business models shift from retail software and shareware toward freemium and subscription-for-extra-features. The third thing is the growing tendency toward cross-platformity -- not all of these apps were cross-platform from the beginning. That suggests that we can expect more cross-platform goodies in the near future.

Victoria Ivey

Read more about mobile/wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.

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