WebOS market review

WebOS market review

Summary: My post last week about XIN, a new contender in the Web OS space, provoked some skeptical comments from ZDNet readers. It wouldn't surprise me if one of the small startups I've mentioned here goes on to become the next Linux So in this post I explain what a Web OS is and why it's of use.

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TOPICS: Mobile OS
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My post last week about XIN, a new contender in the Web OS space, provoked some skeptical comments from ZDNet readers. It wouldn't surprise me if one of the small startups I've mentioned here goes on to become the next Linux So in this post I explain what a Web OS is and why it's of use. I also take a look at the main WebOS vendors.

The OS of course stands for 'Operating System' and here's how Wikipedia defines WebOS:

"More generally, WebOS refers to a software platform that interacts with the user through a web browser and does not depend on any particular local operating system. Such predictions date to the mid-1990s, when Marc Andreessen predicted that Microsoft Windows was destined to become "a poorly debugged set of device drivers running Netscape Navigator." More recently attention has focused on rumors that Google might produce a software platform."
(emphasis mine)

WebOS also happens to be the specific name of a computing research project, which started at the University of California, Berkeley in 1996 and is continuing at other American universities such as Duke. Here's how it's described:

"WebOS provides basic operating systems services needed to build applications that are geographically distributed, highly available, incrementally scalable, and dynamically reconfiguring."

GoogleOS

The WebOS I'm talking about here is the general one. As Wikipedia noted, Google is the most obvious candidate nowadays to build a WebOS. Jason Kottke wrote a famous (in the blogosphere at least) post on GoogleOS back in August 2005. Kottke saw the WebOS as having three parts to it: the web browser as the primary application interface, web apps (like Gmail, etc), and a local server. The third part seems to be the most crucial and the piece largely missing today. Kottke went on to say:

"Aside from the browser and the Web server, applications will be written for the WebOS and won't be specific to Windows, OS X, or Linux. This is also completely feasible, I think, for organizations like Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, or the Mozilla Foundation to make happen..."

Kottke's post was visionary, but as yet there's no sign of a Google WebOS - or one from Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla for that matter.

Those that are building a WebOS

But there are a number of small startups trying their luck. I've already covered XIN. Others are YouOS, EyeOS, Orca, Goowy, Fold. YouOS got a lot of interest last month, making it to the front page of Digg.

There's also a bit of crossover with Ajax homepages like Netvibes, Pageflakes, Microsoft's Live.com and Google's start page. The key difference from Ajax homepages is that a WebOS is a full-on development platform. The likes of XIN and YouOS are application development platforms that also offer things like file storage. Services like Netvibes and Live.com are more of an interface for web content and 'mini apps' like gadgets (some, like Netvibes and Pageflakes, also offer APIs).

YouOS - a virtual computer

So what is a WebOS again? The developers behind YouOS wrote a manifesto about their work, describing it as an attempt to "bring the web and traditional operating systems together to form a shared virtual computer." They're at pains to point out that a WebOS is different from a traditional computer OS, which is concerned with integrating hardware and software. A WebOS, according to YouOS, is "a liberation of software from hardware". I think this statement gets to the heart of what a WebOS does:

"YouOS is a shared computer that houses your data and applications, but you are the owner of this data and applications."

From a user point of view, of course you still need a traditional OS (like Windows or Linux) on whatever machines you use to access YouOS or another WebOS. But as a user, the OS is no longer your primary concern - it's your data and your apps that you only need to concern yourself with.

What's the best WebOS currently?

To be honest I don't know, but I asked the question in a Digg forum last week and got a great reply from 'automan':

"A webOS that wants to make it should be able to adapt to an open source style of environment. Why would I want to be tied into another "proprietary" image editor or word processor? I think that the webOS that supports containers that you can put your own code into and run will be the ones to survive. [...[ I believe that XIN and YouOS have the better model for future development and expansion... YouOS in particular. While it is in no way visually appealing at this point, I believe it has plenty of room to build upon itself to grow in a very good direction."

An open source style makes perfect sense for a WebOS, particularly for the small players wanting to stand a chance against Google and Microsoft. I'll be investigating the above WebOS contenders myself over the next few weeks, so will be in a better position to judge then.

The skeptics

As for developers, a big benefit is that a WebOS theoretically makes it easier to develop apps that work cross-platform. DHTML and Javascript are the main tools to do that, which is where a lot of the skepticism comes from. Take this comment from a ZDNet reader:

"Oh, I wish I wish I wish we could just create a new, standard, simple, clean, cross-platform/write-once/run anywhere, open, programmatic, efficient, robust GUI language that provided the above advantages: 0 administration, 0 risk. Java could've been a contender, but it's a complete mess now; DHTML+Javascript is just evil."

So it seems the jury is out among many people as to how viable a WebOS is. Also a lot of people don't consider a WebOS to be a real operating system, but I think that's semantics and not something worth debating. If you imagine a future when you're accessing your data and apps from multiple devices, the need for a WebOS will become clearer.

The optimists (futurists?)

The reason I'm interested in a WebOS is of course the same reason I'm obsessed with the Web Office - there are so many more opportunities for applications and data running in a networked space, rather than on a single computer or other device. I think we're in the very early stages of WebOS development, but it wouldn't surprise me if one of the small startups I've mentioned here goes on to become the next Linux. A big call perhaps, but we're living and working on the Web more and more every year.

Topic: Mobile OS

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38 comments
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  • And you would access the WebOS from?

    Pardon me for my daft question, but I am a li'l confused here.

    To access an OS on the Web you would need a Browser or a Browsing Interface. Atleast, for the examples that you have given, you do ned Browsers currently. NO idea, if you will, in the future.

    If you are describing a Web Office, that's different, I guess, but an OS, erm, I am stumped.

    Or may be I am too daft. Or may be I am dead tired and sleepy. Whatever. Can someone simplify this for me?

    Regards,
    Shri.
    shrikant.j
    • embedded

      One solution would be to have something, say..., linux embedded into a box that's sole purpose is to fire up a browser and initiate a tunnel to a remote server (where your webOS of choice is located.) It would be a borderless browser so to you, it would look just like you booted a computer arriving at a desktop.
      automang
      • Re: embedded

        Well what i do with my time with webOSs is that i create a shortcut to C:/Program Files/Internet Explorer/IEXPLORE.exe then in the Create Shortcut Wizard I put C:/~~IEXPLORE.exe -k http://desktoptwo.com/frames.htm , which puts IE into Kisok Mode, you know tlike the way they do it in museums. It's very effective.
        croxio5
    • A different way of thinking abou tit would be...

      a web console. Meaning a box that only functions as a web browser. Sort of like a game console but one that opens a web browser instead of whatever game cartridge/disk you plug in.

      Personally, I can see a need for this. There are still far to many people out there using computers who have no clue how computers work and don't want to know. They just want to browse the web and read email. There are also many people who know they know nothing about computers and so don't buy one. Something like this would at least open the internet and email up to them
      3D0G
      • that was supposed to be "about it" oops (NT)

        .
        3D0G
      • Please refer to my blog

        I have aggregated my conversations around the Blogosphere on this topic of WebOSes here:

        http://corporatespices.blogspot.com

        Please let me know your thought on the subject.

        Regards,
        Shri.
        shrikant.j
  • automan to ricmac

    I am the user 'automan' quoted in this blog.I usually seriously frown upon people spamming their own blogs in posts, but since I was quoted in this article I would like to link you to a post I made on this subject a few months ago. http://boned.us/blog/?p=3
    That is how I see the 'webtop' becoming available in the coming years. I also still feel that Custom programmable containers are what will drive the webtop forward.
    automang
  • WebOS is a Form of "Virtualization"

    What strikes me about the Web as Operating System is that it will act as a simple form of virtualization--the browser platform deals with the hardware, all the applications run in the browser. I personally work now pretty much independent of any computer that I happen to be on by using Gmail, Blogger, Zoho Writer, Google Calendar, etc. It's incredibly liberating.

    Seems there are two movements in computing right now: portability and independence. The Web as OS will probably help both, but while portability has a price tag, independence seems to provide cost savings.
    steve@...
  • similarities between WebOS and Linux Standards Base

    The importance, and real need for a standard WebOS is highlighted by the broad acceptance within the Linux community to support the Linux Standards Base. After a decade of every distro putting things in different places, the community has now (mostly) accepted that there are significant advantages in common standards on many basic features.

    Having open standards helps grow the potential user base for all who support that open standard. History shows us the importance of common standards > fax machines, telephones, etc.

    A standard WebOS would help application developers write-once-run-anywhere. Hmm, guess that's what Java could have been if Sun had released it under GPL, or at least dual-license like MySQL!

    So who could pick up the ball on an open standard WebOS - perhaps the Mozilla Foundation is an ideal candidate.
    interoperate
  • Citing Wikipedia!?!?

    Wikipedia articles can be editted by anyone - it's not much different from a blog. Citing such an article as if it had some authority is ludicrous. You would do better to offer your own definition of "WebOS" and let other people cite you as the authority.
    ZappBrannigan
  • Sounds stupid to me!

    could be wrong
    Reverend MacFellow
    • Not stupid. It's just business.

      :D

      It'll be fun to see how it's all fathomed out... and if it proves to be a mistake, who gets to pay for making the wrong decision...
      HypnoToad72
  • SoftPC in a browser?

    This idea is either silly or stupid - I can't decide which. The PAPPL (People against the proliferation of programming languages) group are VERY displeased with this WebOS. It just SHIFTS the same old stuff done today into a different place. No more different than a thesaurus "job" on a programming language. Changing the paradigm just for the sake of change just doesn't make sense.

    What about security? What about viruses? What about M$ "EEE" strategy? What about picking specific browsers to be compatible with? We struggle enough with these questions today, why add to our misery?
    Roger Ramjet
    • It's a design/communication issue

      Once the idea of a desktop was introduced, it became what users expected, and so when you design a service where multiple apps are run together, and you need to be able to dynamically add or remove apps from the workflow 'on the fly', and that's exactly our problem, the notion of a desktop re-appeared.
      For us, it became the logical analogy to communicate with our users, considering the nature of what we offer.
      We are not doing this just because we want to be 'cool', we have done this to adress a real problem for this particular service.
      Mikael_66
  • booting the machine

    After reading the feedbacks, this is the first time I've considered webOS as being housed "on the web". If that's the case, how will you boot your machine? BIOS only goes so far, remember?

    To me, a web "OS" is an operating system that boots your hardware, and immeadiately connets you to the internet. You have to have something standard on your machine. I don't see any other way around it. Even the old Commodore machines at least booted up to a standard OS. From there, you could load the GEOS OS if you had it.

    The beauty of open source is it doesn't matter if you will use GooOS, YouOS, XIM, or anything else. BIOS will kick it in, and you're on the net. Then you continue to pick and choose from Google, Yahoo, MS, or anybody else that houses your favorite app.

    So if my conception of webOS is wrong, at least these threads have opened my eyes. So I'll keep watching to see what develops!
    Joey1058
    • We really need a new terminology

      "To me, a web "OS" is an operating system that boots your hardware"

      To me, it's what is negotiating the relationships between the various apps running and the hardware, making sure we get the most out of both the hardware and the apps at any given moment.
      In that sense, Xin is an OS, since it's doing exactly that on the server.
      People focus too much on the glossy dhtm-windows on the client, cool as it may be, the real thing is behind the scenes.
      Xin is managing the serverload contra the apps running, plain and simple.
      - I think we need a new terminology describing this particular functionality when applied to the web to avoid this kind of discussions, whether it is or it is not..
      Mikael_66
  • Linux as a WebOS? Your parallel escapes me.

    Once the bandwidth and server "oomph" issues are sorted out will an OS-as-a-service even before remotely feasable.

    Until then, it's PC Anywhere and VMware Server as usual.

    Or Windows Terminal Services for the thin clients.

    I'm still waiting to see what will replace IT as the new career base for the middle class... ;)
    HypnoToad72
  • "Web" OS? Ohh, I can't wait. . .

    for an operating system based on an inconsistent, slow, and error-prone connection to a provider who can't meet their SLA, whose servers go offline at random times without warning, and whose web pages already fail to display 1 out of every 5 attempts.

    Why on earth would anyone want this?

    Oh, yes, desperate sales weasels want it so they can sell SAAS to clueless consumers: who, if they understood what they were being sold, would laugh the marketing-droids right back into their boiler-room.

    WebOS? It's the same as Web Office: a product nobody needs, dreamed up by technology parasites.

    No thanks, dude, go get a *real* job like the rest of us.

    Regards,
    Jon
    JonathonDoe
  • Performance and Uptime is key to web deployments!

    No matter what you promote OR sell as a cool technology, Performance will remain a huge factor. SaaS can never be accepted if there are continous outages (Salesforce hit the news everytime the Servers were down).

    I think Virtualization WILL eventually play a key role is WebOS scenario. Actually it already does. I did muse about it on my blog http://tarrysingh.blogspot.com/2005/12/virtually-virtualize-your-os-on-web.html

    Cheers

    Tarry Singh
    Blog: http://tarrysingh.blogspot.com
    Podcasts: http://vlog.oraflame.com
    tarry.singh@...
  • Being Just a Tad Old School

    An operating system abstracts hardware and manages processes. A
    shell is what lets the user "talk" to the operating system. So a web
    operatiing system does what? Takes a user's program and looks
    around on the web for an available processor or processor queue?
    Or are these things shells with with users ask servers to run an
    application/service the server provides?
    DannyO_0x98