When you use a word processor like Writely on the web, it potentially uses a lot more electricity than when you use a word processor on your computer.
Three things can increase the effect of this:
- There is software running on the computers at Google that store the information. This takes dozens or hundreds of computers to store the information for the users. Just the fact that you're involving two computers to do the word processing of one person means you are adding to the electricity used for the task.
- If the programs running on the computers at Google are inefficient--it is not in the case of Writely, but imagining it was--this adds to the number of computers they need to have on their end to handle all of the users.
However, it should be said that desktop applications like Microsoft Word are not completely off the hook on this! Those applications are getting more complicated all the time, needlessly so, and wasting electricity in the process. If the upcoming Office 12 takes 1 second more to do a mail merge than the current Office 11, that adds up. I don't really know if mail merge is slower or faster, but imagine the millions of people who are doing mail merges out there. When my computer is just sitting there, Windows Vista takes 20 watts more than Windows XP, because of the fancy new graphics Microsoft has added to Vista. Imagine that across a billion computers and it becomes clear that if Microsoft had made this more efficient instead of spending time on needless features, it could actually have an impact on global electricity use.
All I've been trying to say with this is that computer programmers who allow inefficiencies to stay in place because it's easier, or to make a quick buck, should own up to their responsibility when that inefficiency is pushed out on a wide basis. Like, for example, the internet. This is not morally different than carmakers pushing SUVs. They do it because it makes a quick buck and it's easy.