See How You Can Bring the Web Operating System to Life
Every so often I read about the Web OS or the Cloud OS, "When are we going to see the Web OS arrive?" In my mind, it’s pretty much here (with a few caveats).
A Web Desktop or webtop is a desktop environment embedded in a web browser or similar client application. A webtop integrates web applications, web services, and applications on the local computer into a "desktop-like" environment. Web Desktops provide an environment similar to that of Windows, Mac, or Linux systems. It is a virtual desktop running in a web browser where data, files, configuration, settings, and access privileges reside remotely over the network. Much of the computing takes place remotely and the browser is primarily used for display and input purposes.
I’ve tried a bunch of the so called "Web OS" projects out there (list here) and find them all to be pretty worthless. (Albeit impressive displays of AJAX eye candy.)
All of this disappointing research raised the following question:
Can you create a portable desktop environment using a collection of entirely web-based applications and services that can do (just about) anything from anywhere in the world?
Let’s Set Some Expectations
That question is loaded with conditions that require some clarification.
Desktop environment = A reasonably integrated window that will allow you to access all of your applications, information, and files.
Collection of applications = Applications that will do document creation, communication, media management and creation, Finances and more.
Everything you need = This is an OS for an AVERAGE computer user; not a graphic designer, hardcore gamer, or video producer.
Anywhere in the world = any computer made in the last few years that is hooked up to a high-speed internet connection.
I’m going to outline all of the steps necessary to build a viable Web Operating system in this article.
- Build a collection of useful web based applications
- Integrate these applications together into a series of suites
- Create a Web Desktop that will tie all of these applications and suites together into a true Web Operating System.
- Give some extra credit assignments to extend your new Web Operating System.
Building a Collection of Useful Applications
We’ll start by gathering up a collection of applications that will allow us to do all of our typical desktop computing. I’ve selected these apps based on a combination of quality, features, and integration with other parts of the Web OS. Please feel free to substitute parts with ones that you prefer or currently use. I’ll cover all of the parts we’ll need, grouped into the following categories:
- Web Desktop
Let’s get started.
This is probably one area that most people have at least partially moved from their desktop to the web already. Let’s see if we can’t go the rest of the way.
Email – Gmail the best webmail out there. You can use the following Greasemonkey scripts to integrate Gmail further into your web services. Google Calendar, Google Talk, RememberTheMilk (task management), Google Reader, and more. http://www.shankrila.com/tech-stuff/top-greasemonkey-scripts-for-new-gmail-20/
Instant Messenger – Meebo allows you to IM your contacts on any network right from your browser.
Phone Calls – GizmoCall allows you to make VOIP calls right from your browser.
Microblogging – Twitter or Ping.FM will allow you to tell the world what you’re up to.
Just two years ago the thought of abandoning your desktop for web-based office applications would have sounded absurd. However, there are at least two great options for getting a nicely integrated, feature rich, alternative to MS Office or Open Office.
You have a choice between Google Documents and Zoho Applications. Google Docs is very tightly integrated with other Google services, while Zoho Applications has a more complete collection of applications. I’ve been a fan of Google Docs (mostly for the integration factor) until I started researching this article. I think that Zoho apps are so well integrated and allow you to plug in third party services that I’m ready to switch. I’m going to use Zoho apps for this project, but you could easily substitute Google Documents and get some impressive results.
I’m going to build this as an alternative to the full-blow MS Office suite (including widely used bolt-on applications like Visio and Project). First I’ll start with the native Zoho applications.
Word Processor, Spreadsheet, and Presentation work exactly as you would expect. Unless you’re a spreadsheet genius, you’ll have everything you need here. If you don’t like one or more of these, we’ll see how to plug in any of the Google Apps as a replacement.
Database – Zoho Creator allows you to create databases online. It’s simple and works well. You may also want to try Blist for creating online databases. If you need to track and share data, this is a godsend.
Document Management – They allow you to create, upload, store, and organize documents using a "My Documents" style folder system. You can even upload Zip files that will allow you to maximize your storage. They have many options for making your files public or private.
Zoho Services that I Replaced with Alternatives
Mail – It’s really nice, and well integrated, but it ain’t Gmail. (or even Yahoo.)
Chat – Do I really need another chat option? I love Meebo for this project.
Task Management – RememberTheMilk is the best dead simple way of creating and managing to-do’s and tasks.
Project Management – Zoho allows you to manage one projectd for free. I don’t really need online project management, but if you do, give it a shot.
Flow Chart Creation – Everyone loves a nice Visio diagram. Gliffy allows you to create and share beautiful diagrams and flow charts.
Integrating Third Party Applications into the Zoho Interface
Zoho has one feature that really blew me away: integration. Not only do they do a great job of creating a unified inerface for their own apps, they allow you to stick just about anything into their interface. Let’s take some of the applications that I just listed above (Evernote, RememberTheMilk, Gliffy, or Meebo). It takes four button clicks to tie them right into the interface as if they were there from scratch.
- Click the Add Apps icon at the bottom of the left Taskbar.
- Type the name and URL of the application into the fields (ie. Evernote – http://www.evernote.com).
- Click the OK button.
- Now, click the More link from the left Taskbar and click your new application.
The application opens in the "work area" of the screen and you can do your thing. It’s that easy to extend the system. So, like I said, if you still prefer Google Spreadsheets over Zoho Sheet, just plug it in.
Multimedia applications are more like the people who create the media – beautiful, just not quite perfectly organized. There is no "office-like" online media suite that I’m aware of, so we’ll have to be a little more creative. For now, let’s just grab a collection of apps and services that let us enjoy our Music, Photos, and Videos. Don’t worry, I’ll tie it together later on.
Music Discovery – I love Pandora and Last.FM for different reasons. If I just want to listen to a bunch of music that I like and get some new suggestions I use Pandora. If I want to see what my friends are listening to or hear what they’re liking I use Last.FM. They’re both great kind of like a sports car and a luxury car.
Photo Sharing and Organization – Flickr– There are a million other good photo sharing services, but Flickr has so many great options and the list of services that integrate with it is constantly growing. If you want to edit your pictures right from Flickr, you should try Picnik as your online photo editing tool. Alternatives: Picasa Albums, Photobucket,
Photo Editing – I selected Picnik, because it integrates right into Flickr, but there are some other applications that are a little more feature-rich or powerful. Find other great online photo editing services here and here.
Professional Video Viewing – Hulu, Joost and Netflix (requires Internet Explorer and costs money)
Video Sharing – Youtube. Enough said.
Video Editing – Jumpcut (Cuts, Eyespot, JumpCut, Motionbox, and One True Media) allows you to edit and share your videos online. Here are several other good online video editing services.
Raise your hand if you or someone you know uses Quicken or MS Money to track their finances and expenses. Yeah, me too. This is another area that we would have shuddered about throwing into the cloud a few years ago. The fact is, you can get your bank on from anywhere these days. My grandmother does it, so what’s stopping you?
Mint Personal Finance – Who needs quicken when you can securely store it all in the cloud and get to it from anywhere?
Online Banking – Most banks have online banking that is very useful.
Bringing your Local Files with you on the Web – There are a number of services that let you carry your files anywhere on the web. Most of them only let you take a small amount of data for free, but one will allow you to make your entire hard drive available from anywhere in the world. Orb.com is a service that
Virus Scan – If you are on some strange computer that you are worried about, try running a virus scan with one of these great online virus scanning services. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Data Storage and Syncronization – There are a number of ways that you can have your files anywhere on the web. Not many provide a lot of free storage, but you can use a few to cobble together a decent amount of storage. My favorite service is Dropbox. It allows you to create a folder on multiple computers and place files (2gigs) inside. These files are automatically synced and update on all of your other computers. (Think Work, Home Desktop, and Laptop.) You can also get at your files from any internet connected machine through their web interface. Box.net is another great online storage service that is accessible from anywhere (1 gig for free). Here is a list of other free online file storage options. If you’re willing to spend a little money, your options get really interesting.
Pull it all Together with a Web Desktop
This is where we tie the whole thing together. We need to create a desktop that pulls all of our disparate pieces together into one easy to find place. This will function as our Desktop, Today Screen, Application Launcher, and Information Hub. There are a few good options for creating the web desktop, but the two candidates that rise to the top for me are iGoogle and Netvibes.
I chose to use iGoogle as my Web Desktop because I like the options and flexibility that are easily available. You could do very well with Netvibes too, so if you’re already a user, stick with what you know.
Once you have a Google account, you can begin using iGoogle to create your Web Desktop. Click the iGoogle link in the top right section of the screen to begin. You’ll start off with a "Home" tab that has a number of common gadgets (content containers) already configured and a Wizard that will allow you to make customizations. Enter your zip code and click the See your page button to close the Wizard.
You use gadgets to add applications and content to a tab. You can add all kinds of content to iGoogle and it can become a real mess, quickly. You can use tabs to organize your content and applications. I started by creating a tab for each category of applications: Communication, Office Applications, Multimedia, Finances, Utilities, and one for Social Networking. Then, I added the applications I needed to each tab. For instance, I added the Gmail, Meebo IM, Twitter, and Yellow Pages gadgets to my Communication tab. On my Office Applications tab I added the Google Docs, Zoho Office, and RememberTheMilk gadgets.
You can add the same gadget to more than one tab. For instance, if you want to see Email and Instant Messaging on Communication and Office Applications you can. You can’t always find a Google gadget for every application or service, so I use a simple link launcher to add any miscellaneous services to a tab. When you click the links, the application opens in a new tab.
There is one really annoying thing about iGoogle; the huge header. It just chews up so much valuable screen real estate and forces you to scroll past it all of the time. Well, if you’re using Firefox with Greasemonkey, just install this script to automatically hide that stupid header. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did.
The following video will walk you through the entire process of building your Web Desktop using iGoogle tabs and gadgets.
Wrapping it All Up
We tackled the idea of creating a usable Web Operating System out of readily available parts. First we gathered up a collection of applications to handle our computing needs. Then we organized them into categories. Next we integrated them as well as possible. Finally, we pulled them all into a Web Desktop where they could be organized and launched. With a little bit of creativity and elbow grease, you can create a pretty serviceable, go-anywhere, Web Operating System. The best part is, it’s all free to use. Now I know that this is no fully set up Windows or Mac pc, but it will let you get most of your common computing tasks done from any computer. By the time you read this, there will probably be some new applications and/or services announced that make this an even more practical computing option. So the next time you hear someone ask, "When will the Web Operating System arrive?" just tell them, "Yesterday".
Spending a couple dollars to extend the System
Box.net or Dropbox offer file storage that is amazingly convenient, but the file size is limiting. Spending a few dollars on either of their pay services can really extend your Web Operating System.
Using your USB Drive Enhance the Web OS
Just because you use other people’s computers (work, friends, family, vacation) to access your Web OS, doesn’t mean that you have to be crippled by their personalized setup. You can load portable applications onto a USB drive and carry your favorite browser with you, complete with all of your settings, bookmarks, and passwords. Just pop in your USB drive and use your Firefox, Opera, or Flock browser, as if you were at home.
If you’re worried about security on other systems, or the tracks that you’ll leave behind, increase your safety by using the Tor Network Plugin and Portable Firefox.
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