Is it Time For the “Web OS”?

1Executive Summary

We’re all spending more time working from different locations on multiple devices (desktop, laptop and smartphone), and keeping all of our data in sync and accessible anytime, anywhere is becoming more important.

Services like Apple’s MobileMe help synchronize data between devices, but that’s no good if some of your equipment isn’t compatible with the service. Cloud-based services, like Google Docs, Gmail, Salesforce and Zoho help keep our stuff in places that we can get to from anywhere, but that often requires having accounts with lots of different services, and often the data isn’t easily ported between apps. In other words, most of us have to jump through hoops to keep our data in sync.

Wouldn’t it be neat to be able to move your entire desktop, with all your apps and data, into the cloud? A desktop that you could access from any device with a web browser would mean that syncing data between devices wouldn’t be a problem. You could leave your office with a text document midway though editing, an incomplete spreadsheet and a half-written email on your desktop, then hit the road, flip open your laptop and access the exact same set of documents — just as you left them.

Current Web OS Options

There are a few services available that already offer this very functionality, commonly called “Web OSes” (although, technically, they’re nothing like an operating system). iCloud (pictured here) and Glide OS, among others, provide cloud-based storage and and a browser-based desktop, including applications. While they go about things slightly differently (Glide uses Flash, while iCloud uses HTML, JavaScript and XML), both have a familiar-looking desktop interface and offer a full suite of desktop software applications that mimic the apps most users have installed on their machines (email, calendar, word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, instant messenger, calculator, etc.).

These services are impressive from a technical standpoint, but although they’ve been around for quite some time now, they’ve never really taken off. In part, that’s because these services try to exactly reproduce the modern desktop experience in the browser, both in terms of user interface and functionality offered.

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Relevant analyst in cloud applications
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  1. I agree that duplicating the entire desktop across many devices isn’t the best solution. Right now, I tend to use mostly applications that allow me to synchronize data between my MacBook and my iPhone, but I’ve ended up with bits of data floating around in too many applications. Google probably has one of the better solutions as Celeste mentioned above.

    The key right now to a successful web os-like solution is in the offline environment. With all of my connectivity gadgets, I still find myself in places with no wireless and no cell phone access. This happened to me just last week at a local (non-tech) event. I need to be able to work offline for synchronization later when I get back to the civilized world of connectivity. An environment that provides this seamless offline desktop / online synchronization across all of my apps is the solution I would use.

    1. the iCloud service I mention in the post actually does quite a good job of working offline. As long as you have the web site opened, everything runs locally, so a lack of connectivity won’t stop you, and when you get connectivity everything should sync up. However, this doesn’t make up for its other shortcomings (particularly the lack of cross-browser and device support).

      Gears is obviously a great step in this direction — but I’m not sure it’s being used to its fullest yet. Gmail offline works quite well.

  2. Celeste LeCompte Wednesday, June 17, 2009

    Google seems to be moving rapidly in this hybrid direction you described, Simon. With Gears/Offline access to Google services, the expansion of the kinds of gadget you can add to your Gmail interface, and a gradual rolling out of better functionality for its Docs applications, it’s a good-enough approximation for most of my needs. Mobile document editing, better tracked changes, and better image editing would give me little reason to use any other applications.

    1. The great thing about Google’s web apps is that those incremental changes can be rolled out gradually, in reaction to user needs.

      You’re right — Gears is great tech to enable the hybrid “OS” approach.

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