Tariq Krim, the co-founder of web portal company Netvibes, has a new project that takes open source and the cloud into the ever-expanding portable-computing market.
The French entrepreneur's latest venture is Jolicloud, a Linux distribution that bears as much resemblance to a modern smartphone operating system (OS) as it does to a traditional desktop OS. Jolicloud, which targets the netbook market in particular, has a launcher that is built in HTML 5 and a core cloud-based service that allows the user to back up and synchronise chosen apps between multiple installations.
ZDNet UK spoke to Krim recently to discuss the cloud operating system model, the balance between web apps and native applications, and the imminent competition coming to Jolicloud in the shape of Google's Chrome OS.
Q: What is the idea behind Jolicloud?
A: The idea of Jolicloud was that we wanted to build an OS that has a very simple user interface — most of the OSs right now are quite cluttered. We are also targeting users who turn to the web for most of what they do.
Traditional OSes were designed for pretty much the pre-web world, and we wanted to build something that leveraged everything we do on the web: Gmail for email, Facebook for social networking, Dropbox for storage and so on. We wanted to build the first OS that is truly designed for the web generation.
Obviously, Chrome OS is coming up, promising much the same thing...
We are using the code of Chrome OS; we rely on Chromium for all our web rendering. It is fast and very reliable, especially on a Linux-based OS.
[Using Chromium was also] a decision we wanted to take because of its support of HTML 5. Originally we were using Mozilla for support of HTML 5, but it was quite limited compared to what Chrome had to offer.
How do you see Jolicloud in relation to Chrome OS?
Chrome OS today is mostly Linux within Chrome. We made a slightly different choice in terms of architecture, to make sure people could use non-cloud applications as well, like Skype or Spotify.
HTML 5 is the future of interfaces, but we still live in a hybrid period of time where we still need to have native applications. It is an interesting model if you only rely on the web, but that's not the reality of most people today.
We still believe people need Skype to do videoconferences and chatting, and people have things like Spotify. Chrome OS will turn into a Google environment, with Google Voice instead of Skype, and so on. We wanted to provide a broader choice to users.
You have heavyweight backing from the likes of Skype's founders. What's your business model?
The OS is free. We feel a lot of people are reviving old computers with it — you can use today's internet with yesterday's computer.
In the future, we will probably have a few paid services as well. There will always be a free version, but for advanced users there will be additional options and capabilities. We're still figuring that out.
We believe one of the key advantages of Jolicloud is that everything you do today will be resynchronised to other installations. That can be expanded to other services, [giving people] the ability to move from one device to another. A lot of people are interested in the cloud but haven't really understood what the key advantage is — that you don't have to rely on the machine itself anymore. Jolicloud will be the backup of all your applications and services.
Updates from the pre-final version of Jolicloud to version 1.0 have been rolling out quite slowly. Is this because of scaling issues with the servers you use for the core services?
We wanted to make sure that we solved problems before they occurred. We could upgrade everyone today and our support team would be swamped with messages. We started with people we worked with in the beta test in the past to check everything was working. The update now has also been slightly improved from a week ago.
By the end of the first week of August, [existing users] will be on 1.0 and we will release the full 1.0 [Windows installer and .iso] so you don't have to do the upgrade.
Another issue has been the fact that applications not installed through the Jolicloud app store cannot be started through the main HTML 5 launcher. Why are these two types of apps not better integrated?
We started with a selection of applications [in the app store]. Most of them are web apps, and we have selected a few native apps.
We have been very cautious at first about native applications for a couple of reasons. First, we are not supporting these apps most of the time. In the past, you had to do everything yourself. We didn't want to expend too much [effort] on applications because, in a way, people were expecting us to address support issues.
The other thing is that all the apps in the launcher are synchronised [to the user's Jolicloud account]. There's a guarantee on apps that are in the launcher: [that] we are installing them out of the box and they work.
But we also believe that the future is about HTML 5. Tweetdeck is a very good example because...
...it has an HTML 5 version that should be available very soon, and we will integrate that as soon as it is released. With the Air version for Linux, the performance is not so good. We believe native apps shouldn't be the way to go. We would promote the HTML 5 version rather than the native version.
Regarding the ability for users to choose what they use, the app centre is based on a curated selection. We maintain the ability for users to install and build their own apps, but we believe in standards, and we believe the technology we will use for that will be very similar to the one that Chrome OS will use for its new web store. Rather than doing our own incompatible wrapper, we wanted rather to let the user benefit.
Chromium is our middleware — we've been building on top of it, and Chromium is a work in progress, so we're trying to make sure we leverage the best of the technologies involved.
You are, one would assume, based on the open-source nature of Jolicloud, contributing your code upwards. What's to stop your ideas being replicated by others such as Google, taking away your business model?
Yes, we have contributed a lot of work on several things, including the Linux kernel. We have done some reporting as well on Chromium. Right now, we're really exploring the forefront, really torturing Chromium most of the time with what we do. More and more stuff we do will be contributed to Github.
There's a huge market. When the pie is big, you don't really fight over which slice you will get — you try to grow the pie. Today, the real target is not Chrome OS. Chrome OS is our ally. Google is investing a lot to share common ideas. The target for us is the millions of PCs left with Windows and outdated operating systems. People have already paid for machines that are perfectly working.
Chrome OS will only be on new machines. If you want to switch over and buy a new machine, if you're interested in that vision of the cloud, you'll probably pick up a Chrome netbook rather than a Windows netbook.
We believe the market is extremely big, and the key challenge today is to convince people to switch from a older desktop model to a web-centric model where the computing power is in the cloud. The next wave of computing may not involve buying new computers, but upgrading existing computers with a better OS.
How many people use Jolicloud?
We haven't communicated the numbers — that's still information that we want to keep for ourselves. We can say that we have had more than a million applications that have been installed by our users. [There are just over 700 applications in the Jolicloud app store.]
As soon as we've finished with the upgrades, we will probably do an update on that — perhaps in September. We're very happy with our numbers, but with Netvibes we gave numbers, and it became the only metric. I can say that [prior to version 1.0] we've had about 100,000 people show interest in the product and try it.
There's a social aspect built into Jolicloud, but it doesn't seem very developed yet. What can we expect there?
We are doing full integration with Facebook; you will automatically have your friends on Facebook integrated. We're pretty much doing the same thing as Spotify — we embed all the Facebook friends, and you can add other people by searching for them. That will be improved, and we will have other ways of connecting, probably Twitter and Google.
Regarding the social part, it's very minimal, and we will improve that as well and add other activities like file-sharing and things like that. That's also a key differentiator to Chrome OS: if two people are using Jolicloud it becomes so easy to share files and apps.
Collaboration becomes the motto. We have already integrated a few services like Box.net and Dropbox, but we will also increase our resources on collaboration. Collaboration with your social network is what we want to try to do with Jolicloud.