Those who want a glimpse of cloud computing's future might want to check out the work of a little-known Swedish start-up.
Xcerion has a browser-based environment known as icloud that looks a whole lot like a Windows or Linux desktop. There are files, folders, icons, and applications, but the data lives inside the cloud. Although some bristle at the notion of a "cloud OS," because such products inevitably still require a Linux or Windows-based PC, Xcerion's icloud does put all the kinds of things you do in a desktop operating system, running inside a browser window.
That's not to say Xcerion wants to turn PCs into dumb clients. On the contrary. Although the data is synchronized to the cloud, its XML-based programs are downloaded to the PC and run natively, harnessing the power of the desktop as well as its ability to work offline.
It's the kind of thing I expect to see someday from Google, Microsoft, and others. But, for those who don't want for Eric Schmidt or Ray Ozzie to be fully ready with their contenders, Xcerion has brought some of that pie in the sky down to earth.
The company launched a developer beta of icloud in September and hopes to have a public beta by the end of this year.
In getting a demo of its product this week, I saw both good and bad. The good part is that it really shows what's possible in a browser even without Flash or ActiveX. Xcerion also shows off a few really neat features, including one that lets you associate the sides of your icloud window with another user on another PC. To share a document or application, you simply drag it off your screen and onto theirs.
On the not-so-hot side, the applications that Xcerion has created may resemble their Windows counterparts but they are really more examples of what could be than full-featured applications. The icloud environment is also painfully slow to load for folks in the U.S. and Asia. Chief Executive Daniel Arthursson said that it runs much faster in Europe, particularly in Sweden and that a content delivery network is coming online later this month that should speed things up for folks here.
As for the applications, icloud is making the source code available so developers can write their own programs that go further. Indeed, that's where the company hopes to make its money, giving away icloud and making money by taking a 10 percent cut on icloud applications created by third parties, as well as potentially on premium features like extra storage. For now, individual users get 500MB of free storage from Xcerion.
Competitors in the cloud
It's important to keep in mind that Xcerion is far from alone in this effort. There are plenty of other "cloud operating systems" like YouOS and the Laszlo Webtop out there, along with many other Web-based application environments that don't say they are aspiring to be operating systems. Salesforce.com has its development environment for business applications, while consumer sites like Facebook and other social-networking sites are also aiming for developers.
Plus there are the big boys like Microsoft and Google.
Google has a whole lot of applications that live in the cloud, including Gmail, its Office-compatible Google Docs and Spreadsheets, and Gtalk. Microsoft also has a number of mail and messaging products as well as document collaboration,and other cloud-based computing projects.
Microsoft has talked a great deal about bringing a more fundamental layer of services into the cloud, although it has thus far been somewhat vague on the details.
Xcerion, meanwhile, is tiny, with 30 employees. The company has been plugging away since 2001. It raised $12.5 million in December 2006 with former Microsoft Chief Financial Officer John Connors and former Microsoft engineer Lou Perazzoli among its angel investors.
While I questioned Arthursson about the company's ability to bring such a broad vision to reality on its own, he rejected the notion that its only option was to sell itself.
"We've already been approached," he said. "We really want to see this to the end user."
Arthursson said he's counting on things like icloud's open-source approach to help it compete against a crowded field.
"If we can connect to our users, I think we have a shot, even though there are larger companies (out there)," Arthursson said.
On its Web site seeking beta users, the company boldly states: "Xcerion aims to sign up millions of users with its offer of inexpensive or downright free software," But Arthursson said, he knows that without a big marketing budget, it will be tough to get that large user base.
"We have a technology that stands up really well," he said. "It's all about connecting to the users, and getting the eyeballs, and giving us some time to add all the features that users expect," he said. And he is banking on the fact that Xcerion's effort is further along than Microsoft's.
"When they have a desktop, we will have 50 applications," he said.