Recently I’ve come across an issue with managing files. I have a bevy of office-type files that I want access to regardless of what computer or operating system that I am on, and I am tired of trying to keep track of which version of a file is the most recent – the one on my desktop, my laptop, my usb drive, etc. For years there have been rumors about Google creating an online operating system (or “Webtop,”) where you could access a desktop through your browser that would look and act like other operating systems, capable of running programs like office suites and email clients. After doing some research, I discovered that there is already a large number of websites available that are providing this function. While most of them are in beta and are definitely lacking compared to other operating systems, some of them are interesting enough to be worthy of your time.
I had some specific features I was looking for in order for me to consider using these services long-term. First, I wanted the ability to store and edit my files online. Second, I wanted a decent desktop environment that mimics standard operating systems, in terms of the layout and programs like RSS readers, sticky notes, etc. Lastly, I wanted something that would run well in a browser without bogging down my system.
Goowy – www.goowy.com
With Goowy, you can get 1 GB of storage free via box.net. This is nice, however since at this point there is no office program available, you have to download a file anytime you want to change it, then upload it again when you are done with it. This kind of defeats the purpose of having an online operating system. It has a lot of interesting widgets that seem to be standard with most Webtops, including one for sticky notes, weather, RSS reader, calculator, etc. It also comes with an address book, email client (with goowy.com domain) and a nice selection of free flash based games. Goowy also has an IM program, however, the default instant messenger only supports MSN and Yahoo networks, in addition to the Goowy network.
Besides the fact that Goowy doesn’t have an office suite, there is an overall lack of a desktop feel with this web application. For example, if I have an email open, and I open up the address book, the email window is no longer available unless I manually open the program up again. Also if I have the widgets open, and I go to the games section, the widgets will also disappear. The Instant Messenger program is the only widget that will stay on the screen when you open other programs, possibly because of it’s compact size. Also, since I can’t integrate their email program with my Gmail account, there is little chance I would ever consider using it as a primary email account.
Schmedley – www.schmedley.com
While this one offered almost no functionality in the way of programs, it did provide an interesting set of widgets. Almost looking exactly like some Mac widgets, there are sticky notes, RSS readers, weather forecasts, and even one for Gmail. While there isn’t a whole lot you could do with these things, it does provide a simple and easy interface that works quickly and smoothly. For the simple functions that it offers, it does the job.
Desktoptwo – www.desktoptwo.com
Desktoptwo interested me because it has OpenOffice available, as well as file storage (1 GB free, plus paid upgrades.) This means that I could save my files, as well as edit them without having to store them locally. My only problem with this was when I opened a file, OpenOffice launched in a new window. To me, this was another example of these web operating systems not emulating the feel of a real operating system well enough. Luckily, all of the other programs available, including an mp3 player, chat program, calendar, and email client opened up in the main window. Why they chose to have OpenOffice open in a separate window rather than the main one like all the other programs is unknown, but I found it noticeably annoying. The OpenOffice programs available were the word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program. Also, unlike Goowy and Schmedley, there weren’t widgets like sticky notes or weather readers available, although there was an RSS reader. Similar to Goowy, only the MSN and Desktoptwo networks were available in the instant messenger. One thing I did like was that there was a message board which connected you directly to the community forums to report bugs or discuss Desktoptwo’s applications. Of all the online operating systems I tried, Desktoptwo seem to be the one that tried to mimic the windows look the most.
YouOS – www.youos.com
This was the final Webtop that I tried. The default programs available included community chat rooms, RSS reader, and oddly enough a couple of web browsers (which opened up in the same browser window you were currently in.) Like some other systems, file storage is available, but currently it is limited to 250 megabytes. There is no office suite by default, but there is a built-in text editor similar to WordPad. I uploaded a couple of test files to see if it could open them, and while it opened Word and text documents okay, it failed to open the OpenOffice file.
There are a couple of interesting programs/ports made by developers for YouOS. These included multi-network messenger programs like Meebo, a Google Apps program which connected directly to your Google account (if you already had one,) and a large amount of games. The Google Apps program was nice specifically because it enabled me to not have to use the built-in editor, which was buggy. The only downside to these programs was that there didn’t seem to be very much moderation being done, as I tried several programs that seemed to require strange plugins that my computer didn’t recognize. Another problematic program was one that let you watch every South Park episode, which besides probably being illegal, is filled with porn ads and links to illegitimate pharmaceutical companies.
Of all the Webtops I tried, YouOS seemed the most innovative. One of the most interesting default programs was called “YouShell,” a command line which responded to Unix commands. The sticky notes program also allowed you to send reminders to yourself from a mobile phone, which are then placed on a new sticky note. While I would have loved to try this feature out, the service to configure this feature was down when I was writing this.
Overall, none of these systems were user-friendly enough to consider them a full-fledged operating system. This was expected, as it seems like none of the current WebTops are out of beta testing. The only original issue I had which I wasn’t able to solve was being able to efficiently store and edit office documents easily. While the three Webtops besides Schmedley all offered this functionality in one way or another, none of them made it easy enough to warrant me using it as my main office suite. Either way, this is still an amazing up and coming technology, and I recommend anyone with multiple workstations to try them out, as well as anyone interested in keeping up with software trends or looking to change the way they use their computers.