April 9, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Is the 'Web OS' just a geek's dream?
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.
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.