While in New York City last week for Digital Life, I stole some time to head down to TechSpace in Greenwich Village (the "Silicon Valley of Manhattan") where I interviewed (on video) Joshua Rand, co-founder and president of startup Sapotek: the soon-to-launch provider of a free browser-based desktop operating system that comes complete with the applications that most people need. In Spanish, "Sapo" means
frog toad. Frogs Toads can only move forward which is the only direction Rand envisions Sapotek heading. Thus, the name.
One of the challenges for Sapotek will be in positioning the service, especially with all the noise around the browser-based application space right now. In the attached video interview, Rand says one big difference between Sapotek and Google (with Google Apps) is the way that Google Apps focuses on the Web delivery of productivity applications whereas Sapotek not only goes after all the other important things a desktop does (eg: storage, MP3 playing, etc.), but integrating them too using a metaphor (a graphical desktop) that most users are comfortable with. For example, when creating documents in the VNC-delivered version of OpenOffice that's included with Desktoptwo, users can seemlessly save their documents to Desktoptwo's "hard drive" which, for all intents and purposes is just 1GB of free online storage.
One of the first things that caught my eye about Desktoptwo wasn't the very complete menu of applications it makes available to users -- the VNC-based access to OpenOffice, a "hard drive", e-mail, and RSS reader, blog authoring and hosting, a jack-of-all services instant messaging client, message boards and more -- but rather that the environment and the applications (with the exception of OpenOffice) are written in Flash. This means that the service is browser independent and will work on just about any platform that supports the Flash runtime.
Just as interesting is the fact that all of the applications have been open sourced as a part of an open source community that Sapotek hosts called Sapodesk. Longer term, much the same way developers can build applications for other desktop operating systems (eg: Windows, Mac, Linux), Sapotek is encouraging developers to write software that works on Desktoptwo. To bootstrap the process, Sapotek has open sourced its own applications and, as a result, Rand says that developers aren't just making modifications to Sapotek's offerings, they're also writing their own apps. Today however, because the service is still in beta, developers cannot load the publicly available service with their third party apps. Sapotek oversees what apps (and/or modifications to its standard apps) make it into the publicly available "distribution." Being able to pull third party apps into Desktoptwo -- reminiscent somewhat of the way salesforce.com's AppExchange functions (you choose applications from third party developers that you can then pull into your salesforce.com desktop) -- is in the works according to Rand.
This open source aspect to Desktoptwo may turn out to be one of the key differentiators between what Sapotek has to offer, and what some of the other players like Google Apps have. Functionality-wise and even from a user-interface perspective, I don't see major strategic differences between offerings like Desktoptwo and Google Apps. Today, Desktoptwo has done a much better job of integrating what's available into a single easy to understand graphical user interface. Google on the other hand has the various bits and pieces in its portfolio, but they're not integrated. Yet. Check back in five years and the pieces that aren't a part of Google Apps (eg: the RSS Reader) will probably be more tightly integrated an the user interface that pulls it all together will be much more polished.
But when it comes to cultivating an ecosystem of developers, Sapotek's approach is very different. Whereas Sapotek is trying to establish an open source ecosystem around its platform, Google takes a more API driven approach. The source code to that core functionality that those APIs access (behind Google's firewalls) is not nearly as accessible for derivative work as a fully open sourced application. So, there are differences.
Anyway, in the video, you'll get to see Desktoptwo in action, hear Rand talk passionately about the product and its direction (today, there's no organization-targeted version of it the way Google Apps is essentially an organization-targeted version of Google Docs & Spreadsheets) and see the business model behind the service (ad supported with fees for storage beyond the 1GB).
Disclosure: Sapotek is an exhibitor at Startup Camp which is an event that's produced by an event production company I co-founded called Mass Events Labs. That's how I came to know of its services. However, exhibiting at Startup Camp involved no payment of sponsorship fees by Sapotek whatsoever. Sapotek exhibited at Startup Camp 2 in May of this year on the basis of a free invitation, and will be doing so again at the third Startup Camp later this month.