April 9, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

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

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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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