We’ve all been watching as the big Microsoft competitors such as Google and Yahoo snap up pieces of a puzzle — just the other day Google bought the wiki-maker JotSpot — the exact picture of which is still unclear. Most of the time it seems they’re gunning for a web-based office suite to take on MS Office. But there are lots of bits that don’t quite fit that view — office doesn’t care about chat or email — or wiki’s, come to that.

Perhaps the best way to think of the current grail is as a web operating system, under (in? on? I never know the relative postures of the components) which a number of more or less tightly related applications will run. Sort of like… well, Windows OS or Mac OS or Linux. So what’s the point of reinventing these wheels?

I think there are a number of them. Points, that is. First there’s the challenge of doing it better than any of the current OS’s. This is pretty much an impossible challenge. Linux and the allied open source movement have thousands of people working on constant improvement, for example. No, here “better” has to mean better for this or that niche audience, which is to say simpler or faster or heavier on graphics, and so forth. A new startup called Parakey seems to be aiming for the “simpler” market. One of the key movers behind Parakey is Blake Ross, the 20-year-old (sic) who co-founded the Mozilla Firefox project. His web OS is aimed at “Mom and Dad,” to make it easier for them to store and exchange their stuff — emails, pictures, etc. — “unifying the desktop and the web,” as Ross puts it (which makes sense because most folks, I’ve noticed, have no idea “where” they are when they use a computer). You can read all about this whiz kid and his latest project in a recent IEEE Spectrum article.

Parakey isn’t out yet, but you can sign up here to get an email when it’s ready.

Another reason to aim for a web OS is convenience: all your programs remain the same whether you’re at work or at home, all your documents are available everywhere because they live on a server. Here you sacrifice peace of mind, shall we say, for the convenience of not having to keep things in sync, peace of mind because your data is far far away on a server run by people who are marginally less than completely indifferent to you. As critics have pointed out, this is the return of the mainframe, turning your computers into what we used to call dumb terminals, only now, as I say, it isn’t your own IT folks who are running the machine.

youos.jpgStill, the race is on. And if you’d like to experience a web OS in its alpha state, take a look at YouOS. (The image, which will enlarge if you click on it, is of Slaw in the YouOS browser.) This is all very basic, and reminiscent of computing’s rough-edged early days when there were a whole bunch of operating systems competing for your dollar.

I’m watching with interest. I like the idea of having access to my stuff no matter where I am — right now I struggle with keeping three computers in three locations in sync; but I also like kicking my own butt when something goes wrong and there’s no backup. My bet is that the winner will be an OS that lives in two places at once, both on the provider’s servers and on your local machine, so that you get something of both worlds. We’ll see.


  1. Along this same line, take a look at this article from today about Amazon’s web OS: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/amazon_webos.php.

  2. >My bet is that the winner will be an OS that lives in two places at once…

    That one thought is worth the price of admission the Slaw alone, or even doule the price! But seriously, I’ll bet you are 100% right on that. Good call.