Operating systems move to the Web
Nov 3, 2008, 3:00 GMT
Washington - Want to see what lies ahead in the world of operating systems? Head to the Web.
That's where you'll find some workable examples of operating systems that move everything - applications, files, and communications - from the confines of your desktop to the more widely accessible Internet.
While the major players in the software industry are not yet among those with Web-based operating system (OS) prototypes, it's clear that the big names are paying attention - and making plans.
Google's Chrome, with its Spartan interface - largely devoid of visible menus, button bars, and status panels - easily reminds one of the basis of an operating system when it's expanded to full screen.
And Microsoft, although deriving a large portion of its revenue from the lucrative desktop applications business, has just announced that it will create Web-based versions of its Microsoft Office applications - and make them available for free.
But Web-based operating systems are more than just a collection of applications that run within a browser. They're self-contained environments in which you can create and store documents, copy files from one folder or drive to another, and conduct communications.
In short, almost everything you can do from Windows or the Mac OS should be able to be accomplished within a Web OS. All you need is a Web browser to get there.
A good place to start in your discovery of Web-based operating systems is eyeOS (http://eyeos.org), which is free, open source, and very easy to sign up for. There's no need to install anything to use eyeOS. Simply sign up with a user name and password to create an account, and from that point forward, you have an operating system on the Web, accessible from any browser. eyeOS creates space on its servers to store your operating system settings and any files you create.
eyeOS resembles contemporary desktop-bound operating systems. There's a workspace area - or desktop - along with icons on the left that represent shortcuts to applications, including a word processor, calendar, contact manager, RSS feed, and a trash bin. Fire up the eyeOS word processor, and you'll find yourself in a serviceable document creation tool, replete with toolbar buttons for most of the formatting tasks that users require today.
Documents you save are stored on eyeOS's servers by default, so there's no local storage involved. You can, if you choose, download the files you create to your own PC and upload files to your eyeOS environment. The beauty of a Web-based environment, however, is that you can shut down your browser - and thus your eyeOS operating system - on one machine, launch a browser on another machine in another location, and then launch your eyeOS desktop again. eyeOS even remembers all of the applications and documents you were last working on, so the workspace you see is exactly the one you left off with.
A green eyeOS button at the bottom middle of the screen is analogous to the Windows Vista Start button. It contains shortcuts to system settings, applications, and a few other commands, including Close Session. Enter System Preferences, and you'll see some impressive customisation options, including the ability to change the theme, or look, of eyeOS to resemble Vista, Ubuntu, Gnome, or other operating systems. The one glaring omission from eyeOS is an e-mail client. Apparently you're expected to bring your own e-mail.
G.ho.st (http://g.ho.st/) is in some ways even more full-featured - and certainly more colourful - than eyeOS. After you sign up, for free, G.ho.st carves out an impressive 5 gigabytes of file storage on its servers for you, and it creates your very own G.ho.st Mail e-mail account, with 3 gigabytes of storage. Like eyeOS, there's nothing to install. Once you sign up, you'll receive a confirmation e-mail message. Click the activation link inside, and you're ready to go.
The first time you launch G.ho.st, your browser will switch to full-screen mode so that you can see all there is that G.ho.st has to offer. There's a full-featured word processor, spreadsheet, e-mail, your personal G.ho.st drive for file storage, instant messaging, and even a few games. There's also plenty of hand-holding in G.ho.st, as well, with icons that offer to take you on a tour of G.ho.st, help you set up your e-mail, create and edit documents, and upload files from your desktop computer to your G.ho.st environment.
A Go button in the lower left-hand corner of the G.ho.st screen mimics Vista's Start button; it provides handy access to all of the operating system's features and programs. G.ho.st is full of glitz and colour, and it is consequently more demanding of your hardware and somewhat more sluggish than eyeOS, which is streamlined by comparison. Still, many will likely find that G.ho.st's friendliness will make any performance hit worthwhile.
--- Desktop Two
Desktop Two (http://desktoptwo.com) is a java-based Web operating system that's the quickest of all to set up and get going. After a brief sign-up routine, the desktop loads, and you're ready to start exploring. Desktop Two offers more applications that allow users to create their own presence on the Web than the other major Web operating systems. Along with a word processor and e-mail program, Desktop Two provides a Web site editor and a blogging program.
The blogging application, in particular, is impressive, providing a two-click entry into the world of setting up and maintaining your own blog. Once you create your first blog entry, the program provides you with the Web address that you can distribute to the world so that others can visit your blog on the Internet.
Desktop Two's conventional applications are less impressive, however, in part because the operating system was not always able to save documents to Desktop Two's online storage system.
--- What's the point?
One could argue that a Web-based operating system is redundant, since one needs a computer, operating system, and Web browser to access an online operating system. While that's true, the point of an online operating system is complete environment portability. That means being able to log on to any computer that has an Internet connection and, in the time it takes to launch your Web OS, having all of your applications and documents ready for you to resume work. Although you could cobble together many of the elements of a Web OS by using, say, Google Docs, Yahoo Mail, and other online applications, doing so would require you to make several stops around the Internet.
There's no doubt that today's Web-based operating systems are far from feature-laden, and they probably will not tempt many to abandon their current routine that combines desktop and Web-based software. But given the push that the major players in the industry are making toward a completely Web-based future, there's also little doubt that Web-based operating systems, or some form thereof, are in our collective future.