I still don't fully get the whole Web operating system concept. Why run an OS inside a browser when your browser is running in an OS to begin with? But AjaxWindows, a Web OS and application suite that launched today, makes a very good case for the Web OS. It's not ready yet for adoption by the world at large, but the idea behind it, and some of the features in it, are too interesting to write off as just yet another science project.
Ajax13, the company that makes AjaxWindows, was originally started to create Web-based applications. It made a word processor, sketching program, and a presentation application. Founder Michael Robertson realized that making yet more productivity applications (see also: Google, ThinkFree, Zoho, etc.) wasn't a Most Likely to Succeed strategy, so he's rolled these applications into an ambitious Web-based operating system. It worked for Microsoft, I suppose.
The AjaxWindows environment is a very convincing (if slower) simulation of a real desktop OS. It lets you (or simulates, I can't tell) open multiple applications in different windows, and if you expand AjaxWindows to full-screen, it really does look a lot like a real OS, with no visible remnants of the underlying Web browser. But there's more to it than just looking and feeling like Windows or a Mac. AjaxWindows' cool tricks are its storage capabilities, its synchronization to your local PC, and its support for other applications and widgets.
AjaxWindows stores its files in Google's Gmail. Considering Gmail's free storage (over 2.5 GB), that's clever, even if Google wasn't consulted for this application. AjaxWindows, and its native applications, store everything except music files in Gmail (Music is stored on MP3Tunes). Syncing your local PC's data files to your online workspace is a snap with the OS' built-in Synchronizer function, which neatly runs without requiring a standalone application download. Your workspace can also get synchronized with your browser's bookmarks, and to even your desktop background and your Windows startup sound.
Beyond AjaxWindows' own applications, your workspace comes preconfigured with links to several Google applicatiosn (such as Docs, Calendar, and Maps), as well as to Zoho Start (review) and other useful Web 2.0 applications like Meebo. But these non-Ajax13-made applications are not integrated into the experience. Clicking on Google Docs opens up the Web application in a new browser window, and files stored in Docs aren't visible on the AjaxWindows file explorer. That's ironic, considering where they are stored. Likewise, you'll need a separate sign-up for non-Google-base applications, like Meebo.
There's also an element of NetVibes with AjaxWindows. You can add widgets, like RSS feed windows and small games, to you desktop. Unfortunately, widgets written for popular platforms like Netvibes and Pageflakes don't work in the AjaxWindows system.
AjaxWindows is an interesting experiment. For users who want to take their desktop with them without carrying any hardware, it's an incomplete if tantalizing solution. The synchronization feature makes it a usable tool if you're OK with using only the Ajax13 Web applications, since unless I missed something, the other applications on the desktop can't access the synced files. (If you really want to avoid lugging a computer, you could also put your applications and working data on a USB thumb drive and get much of the same benefit.) Until more applications, their storage systems, and their sign-on mechanisms get more tightly integrated into this Web platform (see the OpenSAM initiative), AjaxWindows--and other Web-based "operating systems"--will likely remain a curiosity. This is, though, a decent start towards building a truly computer-free personal computing platform.