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."
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."
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.
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.