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Summary:

If you already use your web browser to read your email, write your copy, balance your checkbook, and keep your calendar it doesn’t seem to be too far a leap to consider that very browser to be your “operating system.” A number of sites have emerged […]

If you already use your web browser to read your email, write your copy, balance your checkbook, and keep your calendar it doesn’t seem to be too far a leap to consider that very browser to be your “operating system.” A number of sites have emerged to consolidate many of the functions we do on our computers into a single browser window taking advantage of everything that Flash and AJAX have to offer. A web operating system? Web based desktop? You decide.

There have been rumors for years that Google has been ready to stick its toe in these waters. Nothing from the Big G yet, but in the meantime smaller companies and communities have products that don’t get a lot of mainstream attention.

Are we ready to ditch Steve and Bill? Not so fast.

The idea has its advantages. The odds of losing data stored on your fallible local hard drive is greater than the risk of losing data stored by a web service…unless that company goes under or you lose your ‘net connection. Most Web desktop projects work in modern browsers without an additional download. You never have to worry about system or application updates. The applications on these sites tends to be open source and free, with the sites only charging for expanded storage. No matter where you go, as long as you can get to a browser you can access your files as if you were sitting in front of your own computer. Some of the projects have a mobile interface for accessing files and applications remotely. There are days that I practically live on my Netvibes page. This is just taking the Ajax start page to the next level.

Putting aside the idealized vision of a free, fully independent collection of applications running in an environment that does not rely on the hardware running the browser, should productive web workers jump in? Not quite. After trying several contenders, I have to say we’re not there yet. Not even close. Most are very pretty to look at, but don’t go much further. None of the sites listed below have productivity applications that come close to desktop or even browser-based counterparts. Even with a broadband connection, some are very slow. Worse, the applications are their own islands and do not sync or share data with desktop applications, and offer limited data exchange with other websites. These sites count on their own community of users and developers to create applications.

So keeping in mind that right now we’re not ready to completely abandon the Finder or Windows Explorer…let’s take a high level, practical look at some samples from the current landscape:

Desktoptwo: If MS Windows is your base operating system, you’ll feel comfortable in this tightly-designed environment by Sapotek. It feels very “Vista-like” and only you can decide if that’s a good or bad thing. Check your browser at the door, as the interface requires Flash, Java, and pop-ups.

Like some of the others, the service offers the ability to read POP email, store files on a virtual “hard drive” (1 GB space is included for free), use an IM client (support for MSN, Jabber and GoogleTalk only), read RSS feeds and write documents (through OpenOffice). There is also a calendar application, but as it doesn’t appear to support subscribing to other calendars or sending its data to or from other calendars, its usefulness is limited. There is a blog and website editor, but in an illustration of exactly what’s wrong with these webtop systems it only works with blogs and websites that you get as part of your Desktoptwo membership. Overall, I found the Desktoptwo experience to be pretty, but slow. By the time you read this Sapotek may have announced their new product, Sapodesk, an Enterprise version of DesktopTwo. a software development initiative. Update: Sapodesk’s website is now live here.

YouOS: This one is not nearly as “designed” as Desktoptwo, so it felt much faster.

The built-in editor isn’t OpenOffice, so it’s light on the features. Think of it more like TextEdit or Notepad than Word and you might appreciate it more. The environment is listed as being in an “Alpha” state, and I’ve found that to be true in my testing as it crashed Firefox twice. Proceed with caution. YouOS is trying to build a community of developers and users. What they’re trying to accomplish is clear…the only question you have to ask is “Why?” There are already more stable ways of sharing data and chatting with buddies. What value does YouOS (and other “webtops”) bring to the table?

EyeOS: This publicly-supported project is available as a download, or a hosted service.

This one felt “lighter” and cleaner than its competition. Visually easy on the eyes, and set up in a way that makes sense. It includes a built-in browser, called EyeNav. I’m not sure I see the point of a browser application inside an application that’s running in a browser. Like most of these webtop systems, applications are more “look what we can do!” in a pretty frame than anything truly useful for the productive web worker.

Goowy: Now Goowy is a bit more interesting because it comes from the same folks who do youminis, the widget platform.

The Flash widgets allow Goowy to “hook” into data from the outside world in ways that the other applications can’t do with only their lightweight RSS readers. A developer may be more inclined to write a widget for Goowy/Yourminis that is useful beyond the webtop application before they’d write something for the more limited YouOS or EyeOS. Goowy is entirely in Flash, and has a better email client than the others. But once again, best in its class does not mean that it compares favorably with what you’re already using.

Glide: While not as sleek and pretty as the others, I was immediately impressed by a few features. First of all, there’s a mobile login for accessing data on handheld devices. Second, Glide offers the ability to sync data with standard desktop operating systems through a downloaded application available for both Mac and Windows. Finally! A “WebOS” that doesn’t think the world begins and ends within its borders. I didn’t try either feature to see if it lives up to promise…was just glad to see the developers thinking in that direction.

Glide is the most full realized of the choices here, with the broadest selection of applications that actually work. Still have to answer the “why” question when you think about how you currently do things. There’s a great deal here in Glide, but is it a case of too much? You can add up to 24 users to your account, so you’re all sharing and working with the same data. You can create “containers” of information and control how that information is shared. It doesn’t appear that you can use Glide to check POP email accounts, and like Desktoptwo the blog and web editor only works on pages that come with the account. Glide appears to draw a hard line between home/consumer and business target markets and this version of Glide aims for satisfaction from home/consumer users. For the casual user who isn’t interested in Word or full-featured collaboration suites, but wants more connection with friends and loved ones than the regular consumer desktop applications offer, then Glide would be the best choice of those that are presented here. They do tease a “Glide Business” offering, but it’s unclear how it differs from the version already out for testing aside from price ($20-30/month).

I looked at GoPC, but in my testing I was unable to get the interface to work at all. Xindesk also looks promising if you love the look & feel of Vista, currently in closed testing.

Obviously, I’m not very enthused about this space with no clear standouts of the sites I looked at. Am I missing something? Do you use one of these webtop pages, and if so how does it help you be a more productive web worker? Share in the comments.

  1. Lauren Kao-Wright Thursday, June 21, 2007

    Actually, Sapodesk is a free software community from Sapotek, not an Enterprise version. They launched Sapodesk today and apparently they’re going to liberate all of the applications currently on Desktoptwo and work with the community to develop others. I agree that Desktoptwo is slow sometimes but it has gotten faster since I signed up for the service a few months ago and I believe they’re going to beef up their servers so that should speed up deployment. Truth is, I like this product very much and since I’m a very mobile professional, I like having my data and applications wherever I am. Besides, I’d rather a slightly slow web-based desktop than my Windows XP system that crashes every few weeks or whenever it decides to go “schizo” on me, which it does often.

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  2. Thanks, Lauren. I’ve updated the post with a correction. I knew about this page, and given it’s the same name thought it was the same project.

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  3. The WebOS space seems to me to have all of the hallmarks of a technology being built out before market-viability has been assessed. Where is the clamoring demand for a webos? Essentially nowhere – existing solutions, whether in the form of startpages (as you noted with netvibes), or silo’d hosted application (google apps), are currently meeting consumer needs in 99% of use cases.

    I’ve argued repeatedly that attempts to replicate Microsoft’s platform success on the web are generally misguided. My perspective is that the next step in the evolution of cloud application are protocols to allow inter-operability between sites – like WebFS, spearheaded by OmniDrive.

    In an inter-operable scenario, a webos becomes unnecessary overhead – there’s no need for UI apis etc. when browsers and restful interfaces make it easy to do on a standalone basis.

    Perhaps I’m wrong here – undoubtedly there are subtleties to the technologies that I have no idea about and use cases that I’m unaware of; However, the litmus test for me is to sit and think about how such a tool would fit into my day-to-day workflow – and for the forseeable future, it doesn’t.

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  4. I have been covering this space in detail over the last couple of months, reviewing 20 WebOS apps. This is the new roundup, it contains the links to the older one. http://franticindustries.com/blog/2007/06/16/another-10-web-operating-systems-reviewed/

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  5. [...] Worker Daily asks if it is time for web based operating systems to be considered seriously. The answer is [...]

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  6. Nothing from the Big G yet

    on the contrary, don’t you think ‘google gears’ is the first incarnation of the google os? once they’re confident with its stability and compatibility, you’ll be one install away from a full platform-independent google os that doesn’t suffer from offline-itis.

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  7. “I looked at GoPC, but in my testing I was unable to get the interface to work at all.”

    Judi, can you tell me specifically what problems you encountered? I’m keen to have our support team look at this for you so you can evaluate go.pc properly.

    We will be releasing a new client within the next week or so. The new client will eliminate some of the performance issues that have been experienced by some Windows Vista users.

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  8. Actually I was looking for a “browser application inside an application that’s running in a browser”. I want same plugins and the same tabs open both at office and at home, for a seamless browsing experience. Any other better solutions out there for this?

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  9. [...] WebTops reviews on WWD 22 06 2007 Web Worker Daily has an article discussing if it’s time to take WebOS’s seriously, but then goes on to discuss 5 of [...]

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  10. [...] WebWorkerDaily: Is it time to take the so-called WebOS trend seriously. Maybe, maybe not. [...]

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