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Is the 'Web OS' just a geek's dream?

"Webtops" that bring multiple applications into a single browser take another stab at the fabled Web operating system. Images: Making the desktop fit in a browser

A decade-old concept of moving a desktop computer's everyday tasks onto the Web is gaining steam.

The idea of treating the Web like an operating system--and loosening dependence on Windows desktop applications--dates back to the Netscape browser's debut in the mid-1990s.

Technically, so-called Web OS software still relies on an underlying operating system, like Windows or Linux, to translate a user's actions to hardware functions. But proponents of the Web OS or "Webtops" are bringing more end user computing into the Web browser, arguably making the choice of operating system less important.

Companies like Salesforce.com and start-up YouOS have taken on the ambitious task of building what they refer to as an operating system for the Internet. Microsoft, too, has assembled a Windows Live Core team of engineers for building services that run in the Internet "cloud."

In another twist on the general idea, more services that replicate a computer desktop inside a Web browser are coming online. These Webtop products, also often referred to as a Web operating system, enable people to do most, if not all, of they want to do on the Web.

Laszlo Systems last month introduced what it calls Laszlo Webtop, software that lets users run multiple desktop-style applications within a browser.

For example, a person can run Laszlo's Web-based mail product along with a contact list manager and instant messaging in the same Web browser "container."

Laszlo's desktop-in-the-browser approach--which requires both server and client software--is a step up from interactive Web portals where people can move visual widgets around, said David Temkin, the company's chief technology officer.

"This is a lot more like what a full-blown operating system offers on the desktop than a portal page," he said. "It's not an operating system according to the technical definition. To the end user, though, it appears to be something like that."

Laszlo Flash-based applications are interactive and can share information with each other, such as e-mail addresses, and be programmed to tap into corporate data sources.

Webtop versus Web platform
While Laszlo Webtop is aimed at corporations looking to build rich Internet applications, there are a number of Webtop offerings aimed squarely at consumers. Typically, these provide the foundation to let people run a number of mini applications or widgets in a single browser window.

Goowy, for example, last year launched YourMinis, a Web service where people can combine different widgets that get information such as blog feeds and news through RSS (Really Simple Syndication).

Similarly, Desktoptwo is one of a handful of services that enables users to get to their data and applications like e-mail from any machine. TransMedia's Glide OS also aims to re-create the common desktop program list--word processor, e-mail, etc.--in a Web-based dashboard.

While many of these Webtop or Web OS services tend to be packaged for consumers, software developers are getting their due as well.

Just as Windows, Linux and Mac OS represent a platform on which others can build specialized applications, many Web sites offer application programming interfaces (APIs) to developers, a movement that has spurred thousands of mashup applications.

Salesforce.com, Google, eBay, Amazon.com and other Web heavyweights actively woo developers to build applications that use their services such as online maps or data.

Microsoft, the king of desktop software, has already begun building up a set of APIs for its Live-branded services. As reported by the blog LiveSide, it is now pushing ahead with a more comprehensive effort to provide operating system-like services from its data centers, with Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie at the helm.

In discussing hosted services, Microsoft executives talk about "software plus services," that is, Web services that make use of a user's computer and local data. That's no surprise given that Windows still feeds much of the company's revenue and the company stands to lose if operating systems become marginalized.

But start-up YouOS wants to take the Web OS concept quite literally, aiming to replicate many of the functions that an operating system provides for Web applications.

"Too often people get caught up explaining what they do in buzzwords. It comes back to whether you are solving a problem someone is willing to pay for."
--Jay Hallberg, vice president, Spiceworks

Now in an early 0.1 version, the makers of YouOS are taking mainstay computer operating systems as their design starting point, including a graphical windowing system, hardware-software interaction, dedicated memory for running programs, and an integrated development environment. And the company doesn't intend for YouOS applications to be hemmed in by the Web browser client.

"We're trying to build a single place from which you can access your data and run a multitude of applications, written by anyone in the YouOS network," Jeff Mellen, one of the co-founders wrote on the company blog. "Ultimately, we want the data and apps on YouOS to be accessible not only through any browser, but from any number of devices."

Xcerion, a company funded by former Microsoft executives, is taking the operating system term to heart, too. The company is developing XIOS, Xcerion Internet OS, with which it will offer visual tools for building XML-based Web applications.

Daniel Arthursson, CEO of the Sweden-based company, says that Xcerion will allow for XML-based applications that do not require a client download and will work with a variety of servers. He envisions that the service to host Xcerion applications will be funded by advertising or a small, $10 annual subscription fee.

Already, services like Ning or Coghead enable end users, rather than programmers, to build Web site applications from a browser.

For all the technical innovation, though, it's unclear whether paying customers are clamoring for a "Web operating system."

There has been an explosion of hosted Web applications, or Webware, over the past two years, and customers are finding a growing list of capable Web applications such as word processors or social-networking sites.

Webtops that aggregate multiple applications in a single window or enable people to log on to their virtual "desktop" from anywhere are an improvement over most of today's Web applications. But trying to build a business by re-creating a computer online, with storage and other functions, is tough from a technical and marketing point of view, said Jay Hallberg, vice president of systems management start-up Spiceworks.

"In the universe of techies and early adopters the (Web OS is interesting), but it turns out we're 10 percent of the population," he said. "Too often people get caught up explaining what they do in buzzwords. It comes back to whether you are solving a problem someone is willing to pay for."

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