One of the things that has been most-surprising about the advent of Netbooks is that it has become less about the hardware as much as how mainstream operating systems and applications have had to adapt to fit within their confines. In the earlier generations of these machines, operating systems like Windows Vista just didn't cut the mustard, which is why most Netbooks you can buy right now are either running Windows XP or a variant of Linux.
While that is certain to change with the release of Windows 7 in late October, which runs leaner and meaner than Vista ever did (and could even come on a thumb drive), Microsoft's stumble opened things up for other operating systems to come in and fill the gap. Many consumers have more of a choice than ever with alternate operating systems that are becoming easier to install and use on these smaller machines.
One of those, called Jolicloud is launching in beta in the next few months. Created by Tariq Krim, who founded and later left widget-based start page Netvibes, the alternate OS has been designed for Web workers, or people who do most of their work (or play) on Web applications and services.
I've been giving it a thorough run-though over the past few days and have come away impressed at what it's trying to do. Some bits and pieces are definitely still beta, but the underlying approach of making Web sites and software applications feel the same, as well as introducing users to new ones to use is really innovative.
How it works
Jolicloud centers on a directory of applications that can be sorted by genre, release date, and popularity. To download or remove them from your computer, you just click on their icon and it does the rest. Jolicloud groups both Web apps and software programs under the same name umbrella, and both are added and removed from your system in the same manner. There's also a normal add and remove programs tool just like you get in Windows, but it's easier to do it from Jolicloud's rounded and simplistic interface.
Jolicloud is designed to let users hop back and forth between apps that all use the entire screen. Apps you have open stay in a top menu bar and can be switched back and forth just by clicking on them. Alt+tab works too.
Interestingly enough, you don't actually launch any downloaded app from the directory screen. Instead, they're housed in a simple three-pane menu that users can hop back to at any time. This keeps apps organized by whatever category they were in on Jolicloud's directory, but it's also a little jarring after using Windows or Mac where you're used to a start button, quick launch menu, or dock.
One of the big draws to Jolicloud is that it takes this list of apps you have installed and backs it up. If you have multiple computers running Jolicloud that share the same account, it syncs up those apps, including any log-ins or shared data. This puts less of an importance on what hardware you're using, meaning you can hop from machine to machine and get right back to what you were doing on the other.
As mentioned earlier, Jolicloud allows users to befriend one another as well as join groups. This means you're alerted to new applications on a constant basis. For many though, this may be a little creepy.
When showing this to one of my friends, their first question was "does that mean everyone will know what video I watched while I was supposed to be working?" Luckily no. For now it's limited to displaying what applications your friends are adding or removing--not what they're doing inside of them. But I could easily see that changing with some apps that share your information with others, like social-gaming site Kongregate, and social networks Facebook and Twitter.
Easy and hard at the same time
Jolicloud fits on a CD or a (more Netbook-friendly) USB thumb drive. It can be installed on top of, or beside your standard OS. In my case, I installed it alongside a build of Windows XP and it automatically partitioned my hard disk to make extra room. The whole thing took less than half an hour from start to finish, and when it was done I could still boot back into Windows without a hitch.
One change since earlier versions is a cross-platform (Windows, Mac, and Linux) software utility that lets you create a bootable USB key. You just tell it where the Jolicloud install file is and where the USB stick is and it does the rest. Previously you had to do this using third party applications, and/or a multistep copy and paste into the command line. Not exactly user-friendly.
Although it's not done yet, there are some definite key features that make Jolicloud more than just a re-skinning of Linux. The idea that you can discover new applications and manage what you have installed on your machine in the same place is downright cool. So is the idea of having all your apps and settings synced up between multiple machines.
I'm less enthralled by the idea of having to basically install bookmarks, and do away with having multiple windows open in the same desktop area--something I've grown very accustomed to on Macs and PCs. It's also still Linux, and comes with some of the same hang ups and the often-steep learning curve.
For instance, on the machine I was using to test it (Acer's Aspire One), I had to manually track down the Ubuntu Linux display drivers in order to get the screen resolution above 1024x768. As a result, everything I was looking at was stretched out. There was also no software for the multitouch trackpad I was using, which meant no handy gestures for things like page navigation or on-screen shortcuts. These things could certainly make their way into future builds, but in the meantime, the fact that I was a part of the technological minority became abundantly clear.
Will these kind of kinks be worked out eventually? I sure hope so, because it's one of the few things that held me back from fully enjoying the experience. I greatly dislike having to hunt down drivers, or deal with bugs that keep me from using certain applications, and I have a greater tolerance than most folks. One of the easiest way to square away these problems is to partner with hardware vendors and get Jolicloud on there as the main or alternate OS. Offering it for free, which is what Krim is currently doing, is a good way to start.
Free (for now).
Large directory of applications that are easy to install and uninstall.
Simple way to create a USB key w/included software.
Multiple types of installations, including ones that can sit alongside your normal OS.
Windows emulator (WINE) so you can run many applications you're used to.
OS and applications automatically update.
Can't have multiple applications on screen at the same time.
Downloaded applications are organized for you and cannot be reorganized.
Does not work on all Netbooks, only certain models.
Linux-related hang ups like limited driver support.