Is it Time to Take the So-Called WebOS Seriously?

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.

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