Just don’t call it a Web OS

23 Comments

When Richard MacManus published an overview of the so-called Web OS market almost a year ago, he said, “a lot of people don’t consider a WebOS to be a real operating system, but I think that’s semantics and not something worth debating.” It seems many developers of these web-based windowing and application platforms agree with him and position their wares accordingly.

Semantics aside, there are good reasons to question whether offerings such as YouOS, EyeOS, Xcerion (which calls itself an “Internet OS”) and others like them should be named after the software category that launched a $280 billion company. Sometimes they are more modestly called webtops, a name that might at once calm the hype and show what they’re really aiming at: putting a desktop facade of questionable benefit onto the web.

The most ambitious Web OS offerings seek to create a Windows or Mac-style desktop that works with data in the cloud. Let’s take YouOS as an example:

YouOS is a new type of platform for web applications. We’re trying to build a single place from which you can access your data, and run a multitude of applications, written by anyone in the YouOS network. Ultimately, we want the data and apps on YouOS to be accessible not only through any browser, but from any number of devices. Your stuff, anywhere, anytime, anyhow. It’s still early, but that’s our vision.

But importing the desktop paradigm into the cloud, onto the Web, represents a step backwards — not one we should crown with a name full of such promise and history as “operating system.” The current architecture of the Web is “small pieces loosely joined” yet none of these webtops appear to hew to such an architecture, except within themselves. They don’t integrate applications and data from across the Web but seek instead to bring the user into an entirely new environment with an entirely new set of applications.

Ajax start pages like yourminis, Netvibes, and Pageflakes overlap in intent and function with the Web OS offerings, the difference being that a Web OS includes a full development environment and often email clients and other desktop software replacements.

Ajax start pages don’t replace the web development paradigm and they integrate pieces from all over. No one — developer, user, investor — will be misled into thinking that Ajax start pages are going to take over the desktop or the Web. A “start page” promises only what it delivers: a beginning for your work and your browsing not a desktop-style replacement.

23 Comments

Neil Williams

You might also be interested in a brand new start page available called Funky Homepage (www.FunkyHomepage.com). It’s comprised mainly of Google gadgets (as well as Gadgets from other sources), live news feeds (with your choice of news provider), daily Bushisms, daily jokes, horoscopes, videos, weather (up to 5 locations), interactive calendar, Google calendar viewer (for up to 5 Google calendars), comic strips and lots more besides. It also lets you choose your own search engine, colour scheme, etc.

Unlike many of the other personalised start pages available, there’s no need to create an account and it’s all already set up for you, with the most popular gadgets organised by category and sub-category. So there’s virtually no setting-up work required by the user, making it ideal for the mainstream audience and those (like me) who can’t be bothered to do all the work of setting up their own page. More adventurous (and less lazy) users can choose to add their own Google gadgets and RSS feeds, but most people just use the gadgets and tools provided.

Unlike Netvibes, PageFlakes and all the other AJAX powered home pages, Funky Homepage does not use a drag and drop interface. Instead it allows you to select from a drop-down list of the most “popular” gadgets and feeds – “popular” according to the Google gadgets most popular list, that is. As such, it’s not really intended to compete with the flexibility of Netvibes and PageFlakes, but instead is intended to address a gap in the market for those who want something a bit more funky than Google or Yahoo, but without all the setting up required of Netvibes and Pageflakes. So only the most popular gadgets are offered. Although it still maintains a large degree of flexibility for the more adventurous users, allowing them to enter their own feeds and gadgets, should they wish. Whether you like it or hate it, at least it offers an alternative from the plethora of AJAX-powered homepages that are now available.

It’s free to use and you can check it out at http://www.funkyhomepage.com

Melissa

Great post,

“A “start page” promises only what it delivers: a beginning for your work and your browsing not a desktop-style replacement.”

If you just want a startpage as a beginning of your browsing, check out http://go.nzal.es.

Vijay

Anne,

I agree with your reasoning completely. In particular your point “if there’s any Web OS, it is the web itself”. Name OS is associated with something very core, which has a huge barrier (from a positive sense) for anyone to go beneath that layer. OS does all the heavy lifting abstracting the complex architecture below (like the Hardware or the way internet works). For lack of any other suitable word, I would also go with webtop for the class of software you have mentioned. “jccodez” on this thread has some good points.

Vijay
Dekoh

Anne Zelenka

I prefer the “webtop” name at this point — if there’s any Web OS, it is the web itself not anything offered by any vendor. But Sziget’s point is good, if anyone might reasonably claim to have the power to create a Web OS, it would be Google.

I don’t dispute that you can abstractly call what Xcerion and others are creating an OS. I don’t dispute that you need operating system-like functions living at a layer above the nodes on the web. But I don’t think that investors or users or developers are served by presenting these application development environments or web desktops as “operating systems” given all the history of PC and mainframe operating systems — and given their success in the marketplace.

Seems to me like services that call themselves Web or Internet operating systems both overreach and obscure: they overreach in their ambitions and they obscure what the architecture of the web should look like.

Tim Reilly

I find this debate fascinating since, in the end, the market, i.e. the users will decide whether they prefer the suffix “OS” or find it inappropriate. I’ve also looked at these sites and think that Desktoptwo, which you failed to mention in your article, is probably the best “webtop” out there right now. I also appreciate how they clearly explain on the homepage their preference for “webtop” over the term “WebOS.” They clearly state, in reference to their product, that “some call it a WebOS, although we feel that’s a bit premature… for now.”

I found that an interesting and honest caveat from one of the better, if not the best, actors in that growing space.

mojo

We are at the peak of Web 2.0 when these guys come on here touting the benefits of something crappy like pasting and running sql…

Mikael Bergkvist

Xindesk is a different thing, we just happened to create a desktop enviroment to access it.
Xindesk leverages the most used methodology to create apps for the web there is, namely DHTML, and has moven that to the server, persistent variables, dynamic runtime, document.all, all included, and added an Ajax layer that is applied by default.

This means that you can cut’n paste a script from dynamicdrive.com, add some database/SQL hooks and run it serverside as a live clientside Ajax application on the fly.

Our tagline really should be “XIN, when the server is the browser”.

More at http://www.xindesk.com/blog

Zvi Schreiber

Hi Anne

Web applications DO require a Web Operating System – to give them a common sign-in, common file system, common data sharing/clip board, common persistent desktop and common look&feel elements.

While some web desktops are just desktops, G.ho.st (http://G.ho.st) the Global Hosted Opoerating SysTem is going to be a real Web OS – it works with third party Web applications (not with its own applications) and provides a stack including desktop, common widget toolkit, common file system, common data sharing, single sign-in and more. The only layer arguably missing from the equivalent offline operating system is the hardware drivers (and who cares about that). I think you can certainly argue that this constitutes a Web OS but we like to think that it’s fun, useful and cool by any name :-)

Zvi Schreiber
CEO, G.ho.st

Zvi

Daniel Arthursson

Attention: Anne Zelenka,

You have written a very interesting article that focuses on an even more interesting subject. The right or wrong of naming different types of software as a Web OS – Internet OS or not? Xcerion agrees that many services are wrongly labeled as an OS.

Xcerion XML Internet OS (XIOS) does not really fit the bill on the problems you so clearly illustrate though. A clear distinction between what is a real Internet OS or not is the capability to continue to operate in an offline mode. Without offline mode, it is more of a dynamic window manager for server backend code (web applications) than an OS. An offline mode requires many parts of a traditional OS to be in place.

Maliks Oms article describes our XIOS very well: “Xcerion makes Internet OS real”
http://gigaom.com/2007/03/31/xcerion/

Our XIOS is about 70% of a real OS, we just happened to implement it within a browser, using traditional OS architectures, OO-programming etc and used the browser as the rendering engine. The use of the browser gave us one very valuable point – zero-installation and easier adoption.

Using standard AJAX technologies, other current web sites and services are able to run side by side from within XIOS and XIOS also lends itself to be extended by already developed JavaScript components or make use of already available XML Web Services. It is ideal for mashups and creating user interfaces on top of Service Oriented Architectures (SOA). XIOS is clearly not trying to create its own universe. Its applications can also be hosted on any web server as an alternative surfing experience as compared to HTML pages.

XIOS includes a XML virtual machine for running application built on it, even when the user is offline, like any traditional OS. Data changes get synchronized as soon as the user goes online again. This is handles partly by the built in transaction engine (running from within the browser). The XML virtual machine acts like an abstraction layer for developers to really be able to develop applications very rapidly without having to know any AJAX technologies. It clearly opens up the world of desktop applications in a browser to more people than the hardcore developers.

In many aspects XIOS is a real OS and can easily be differentiated among other so called WebTops, widget portals and productivity suits on the Internet, since they all are bound to constant Internet access and server round-trips.

What constitutes XIOS? XML virtual machine for executing applications, data communication layer, UI rendering layer, inter application communication, clipboard, virtual file system, search, document versioning, transaction manager, collaboration support, XML Web Services stack, programming APIs, OS extension APIs, extensive XML support, UI components/widgets for building applications, desktop surface, document explorer, task manager, console, visual integrated development environment (IDE) and much more. In other words, most of what an end-user and developer perceives and uses as their operating environment.

I would argue that trying to redevelop the lowest layers of a traditional OS would not be the best use of resources. Today’s operating systems are more and more becoming a commodity and are in most aspects quite good at handling process scheduling, memory management and device drivers. We want to focus our innovation on the aspects that matters most for the users, ie integrated applications, rapid development of new software and collaborative software that really make use of the Internet and the possibilities with it.

We stand on the shoulders of previous achievements of the computing industry and Xcerion are extremely focused on bringing new innovative value and user experiences to end-users, not new device drivers. That is what we think will really matters for most people. We call it an Internet Operating System, since it really extends Internet into becoming an OS.

Like many people that have seen XIOS previously have said – Seeing is believing. Keep an eye on us when we launch.

Daniel Arthursson, CEO
Xcerion
http://xcerion.com

jccodez

os, operating system…an operating system provides kernel level services, not the least of which is memory management, a file system, a hardware abstraction layer…

I want to say to the web 2.0 weenies again:

You are STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS.

You are NOT THE GIANT.

Please, please stop depreciating the decades of work by countless individuals who build operating systems. Your web os does not boot itself, it does not load device interfaces.

If they did not teach you this in your CS classes, you really should consider the value of your education. If you did not get a CS degree, and consider yourself a software engineer, please at least educate yourself to the last 4 decades of computing.
The world will not run in a browser, the browser is not the new os…unless it somehow boots my usb flashdrive, provides device contexts that my printer can render….

It is a framework AT BEST, get it?

Stan Schroeder

@Anne: the term WebOS can be misleading, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s hard to say where the web as a platform will end up at this point. You say the web is the OS? Fine. But on the desktop level, there are many different OS’s. No one would say: “the PC architecture is the OS, everything else is just layers on top”.

I’m the first one to admit that this is a hard issue, and that I may be wrong on it. But in the meantime, I still have a very real, practical problem of having to call these applications something.

I’ve had the same problem with Digg-like sites. The term Digg-like is, in my opinion, unfair towards other services, and completely imprecise. That’s why I’m calling these types of applications RSVC – Read Submit Vote Comment.

The same goes for the WebOS. Lacking another way to call this type of applications, I’ve settled for the lesser evil. As much as I value your arguments in this article, you’ve offered no viable alternative; and though it may be a question of semantics, it becomes very palpable when you actually set out to write something about such applications.

Siqi Chen

Anne: I agree 100%.

The web doesn’t need applications on a WebOS, we already have them – they are called web applications, and you launch them by clicking on your bookmarks.

The web doesn’t need development tools for applications on the WebOS, we already have them – they are XHTML, CSS, and Javascript.

The web doesn’t need a WebOS – we already have it – it’s called your browser.

Anne Zelenka

Stan – while I agree with you that it makes sense semantically to call such an offering a “Web OS” especially if it includes a full-on application development environment, it’s misleading in terms of their desirability and their prospects. This underlying issue that runs deeper than semantics might be why some people react so strongly to use of the term Web OS.

The web itself is the platform — it’s programmable, composable, extensible and it offers a user interface via the browser. Attempts to define yet another platform atop it that somehow reproduce the desktop experience are moving in the wrong direction. The more ambitious of these offerings overreach in trying to take over too many capabilities that the web already offers natively. Plus they do it in a way that uses an old-fashioned paradigm (the desktop).

Sziget

The only company that can make something you can call ‘Web OS’ is Google. G-OS or something like that :)

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