Understanding Web-Based Desktops
A web-based desktop, or webtop, is essentially a virtual computer desktop displayed inside your web browser, delivered over any Internet connection. A web desktop has a graphical user interface (GUI) like Windows or the Mac OS, and often comes complete with one or more productivity applications. The webtop and all its apps, as well as your personal preferences for how the desktop looks, are stored in the cloud, and you access it over the web.
What kind of apps come with a typical webtop? In almost all cases, it includes basics such as a web browser, email program (for the hosting site’s web-based email service), web calendar, and maybe even instant messaging client. In many instances, the application suite also includes a word processor and spreadsheet, and maybe even a presentation program. In other words, all the apps you need to be functional in the office or on the road are included.
Of course, the chief benefit of a web-based desktop is that you get your own personalized computing environment that follows you around from computer to computer—or even to compatible cell phones and handhelds. All you have to do is log on to your desktop from any web browser, and everything you do—all your apps and files—is right there, same as it was the last you left them. And it’s all completely personalized with the colors, backgrounds, and order you specify.
Interestingly, some people refer to web-based desktops as web-based operating systems, because they deliver OS-like functionality over the web. I don’t buy that, because a webtop does not replace your current operating system; it sits on top of it—or, more accurately, inside your web browser.
That said, many web-based desktops look and feel a lot like your favorite operating system. Some mimic Windows right down to the taskbar and Start button. Others do their best not to look like Windows, figuring you’ve had enough of that. Naturally, you should pick the webtop that looks and feels most natural to you.
Evaluating Web-Based Desktops
One of the most fully developed web desktops is ajaxWindows (www.ajaxwindows.com). This webtop integrates several key applications, including ajaxWrite, ajaxSketch, and ajaxPresent.
As you can see in Figure 1, the ajaxWindows interface is very Windows-like, which should make it easy for beginners to get comfortable with. The desktop duplicates much of the functionality of the standard Windows desktop, including desktop icons, a start menu, taskbar, and Sidebar-like widgets. Of course, you can add your own programs as icons to the desktop and customize the desktop’s background and color scheme.
Figure 1. The Windows-like virtual desktop of ajaxWindows.
Although you have to sign up to get full functionality (with online storage thanks to Gmail), registration is free. The wide range of apps plus the free cost makes ajaxWindows a good choice for all users.
Deskjump (www.deskjump.com) offers a variety of easy-to-use applications housed on a common desktop, as shown in Figure 2. You get a simple word processor, spreadsheet, email client, address book, online calendar, picture viewer, and file manager, as well as 1GB online storage space and your own blog and website. Although Deskjump doesn’t offer the most sophisticated applications, it is free and easy to use.
Figure 2. The web-based desktop and basic applications of Deskjump.
Desktoptwo (www.desktoptwo.com) offers a relatively uncluttered desktop, as you can see in Figure 3, except for an annoying ad window that just won’t go away. (That’s how they get away with their free service, I suppose.) The apps included aren’t as plentiful as with some other desktops; there’s email, a calendar, an address book, instant messaging, an MP3 player, and a notepad—but no word processor or spreadsheet.
The eyeOS (www.eyeos.org) offers a suite of useful applications, including a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, email client, contact manager, calendar, photo viewer, and file manager. All apps are compatible with Microsoft Office file formats. As you can see in Figure 4, the desktop is very simple, with a task-based “start” panel helping new users get started.
The initials stand for “globally hosted operating system,” which is exactly what g.ho.st is. (And the URL mirrors the name—yes, it’s actually g.ho.st.) You get 5GB of online file storage, FTP access, instant messaging, a web browser, and an email client. Productivity apps are courtesy of Zoho and include Zoho Writer and Zoho Sheets. You also get a bevy of desktop widgets, as shown in Figure 5—enough to feel cluttered, at least until you personalize your own desktop.
We’ve discussed Glide’s various web-based applications; combine them all into a single desktop and you get the Glide OS (www.glidedigital.com). The Glide OS, shown in Figure 6, includes a word processor (Write), spreadsheet (Crunch), presentation program (Present), photo editor, calendar, email client, media player, virtual online hard drive, and more.
The Nivio (www.nivio.com) desktop should be familiar to most computer users; as you can see in Figure 7, it’s essentially Windows 2000, hosted on the web and piped into your web browser. For $4.99/month you get Nivio’s web-based version of Windows 2000, complete with Microsoft Office (including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint), Microsoft Explorer, Adobe Reader, and other popular applications. This makes Nivio perhaps the most full featured of all web-based desktops—certainly the one with the most familiar productivity applications.
Figure 7. Nivio—Windows 2000 in the cloud.
StartForce (www.startforce.com) provides a Windows-like desktop, complete with green Start button for the start menu, as you can see in Figure 8. The desktop is integrated with Zoho’s web-based productivity applications, and also comes with an instant messaging client, web browser, and media player. Also included is a file loader for bulk uploading.
Our final web-based desktop is YouOS (www.youos.com), which is a simpler desktop than some of the others discussed here. As you can see in Figure 9, the desktop contains a simple text editor, file manager, web browser, chat/instant messaging client, and sticky note app. Not a lot of customization is possible. For what it’s worth, the company bills YouOS as an “application community,” where developers can create their own YouOS apps or widgets.
Almost a Desktop: Apple’s MobileMe
As of mid-2008, Google and Zoho have a new competitor in this web-based suite space, in the form of Apple MobileMe. MobileMe is Apple’s foray into cloud computing, with a variety of useful applications hosted on Apple’s cloud.
MobileMe includes the following applications:
Contacts (contact management)
Calendar (calendar and scheduling)
Gallery (photo gallery and sharing)
iDisk (online file storage)
One of the unique things about MobileMe is that it isn’t limited to just PC (Windows or Mac) access; you can also access your MobileMe apps and documents via Apple’s iPhone or iPod touch. That makes MobileMe the ultimate in on-the-go application suites, accessible virtually anywhere you have a Wi-Fi or cell phone signal.
MobileMe is as snazzy as you’d expect from Apple, which should appeal to trendy users everywhere. While Google and Zoho offer their equivalent web-based apps for free, Apple charges $99/year for a single-user MobileMe subscription, or $149 for a five-user “family pack.” For that you get access to all the MobileMe applications plus 20GB online storage (40GB for the family pack). That makes MobileMe one of the pricier cloud offerings available today—although if anyone can command the price, Apple probably can.
You can learn more about Apple’s Mobile Me at www.me.com, which is a pretty cool URL, if nothing else. If you’re serious about cloud services, and especially if you’re an iPhone user, it’s worth checking out.