NEW YORK -- A quiet revolution is transforming life on the Internet: New, agile software now lets people quickly check flight options, see stock prices fluctuate, and better manage their online photos and e-mail.
Such tools make computing less of a chore because they sit on distant Web servers and run over standard browsers. Users thus don't have to worry about installing software or moving data when they switch computers.
And that could bode ill for Microsoft Corp. and its flagship Office suite, which packs together word processing, spreadsheets, and other applications.
The threat comes in large part from Ajax, Web development tools that speed up Web applications by summoning snippets of data as needed instead of pulling entire Web pages over and over.
Ironically, Microsoft invented Ajax in the late '90s and has used it for years for an online version of its Outlook e-mail program.
Ajax's resurgence in recent months is thanks partly to its innovative use by Google Inc. to fundamentally change online mapping. Before, maps were static: Click on a left arrow, wait a few seconds as the Web page reloads, and see the map shift slightly to the left. Repeat. Repeat again. Now you can drag the map over any which way and watch new areas fill in instantly.
Scott Guthrie, who oversees the Microsoft Ajax tools called Atlas, believes Ajax has a future but not one at odds with Microsoft's.
''Ultimately when you want to write a word processing document or manage a large spreadsheet, you are going to want the capabilities . . . that are very difficult to provide on the Web today," Guthrie said.
Computer-intensive applications like Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop image editor and high-end games won't come to browsers anytime soon. Even Google had to create desktop mapping software, called Google Earth and requiring a download, to permit 3-D and advanced features.
''Ajax cannot do everything," said Bret Taylor, who oversees Google's mapping products. ''Web applications have a way to go."