Hands on: Jolicloud 1.0, a Linux distro in progress

Promoted as a cloud-based Linux for netbook users, Jolicloud has promise -- but still needs work.

Jolicloud 1.0 is a new edition of Linux aimed at nontechnical netbook users that's described this way by its makers: "[It] is not a traditional OS. It was built for netbook users to leverage the cloud and make their life easier." Think of it as a variant on the Google Chrome OS approach: This Internet operating system, as the company calls it, is little more than a Web browser plus a few other supporting technologies.

Does Jolicloud live up to its promises? Somewhat. Its biggest problem is that it feels more like a second beta, not a 1.0 release; it needs more work before it's truly useful instead of one step above a curiosity.

Jolicloud 1.0
Jolicloud's main screen. The contextual search box at the top returns results for programs in the form of a quick launcher.

Jolicloud can be installed in two ways. You can run a native Windows installer, which creates the needed disk partition and modifies the boot loader right in Windows, leaving you with a dual-boot machine. Or you can download a bootable .ISO image, burn that to CD or flash drive, boot that, and either run Jolicloud straight from it or use it as the installer.

The first method is easier all around, especially since it makes removing Jolicloud -- including deleting the partition created for it -- as easy as uninstalling any Windows app. If you use the second method, you have to manually remove the partition and modify the boot loader if you want to later uninstall Jolicloud.

In theory, you can install Jolicloud on any PC, not just a netbook -- but it's a good idea to check the company's compatibility list before you start -- the consequences for using an unlisted device can vary from minor irritations to total showstoppers. While I was able to install Jolicloud on a Gateway LT2030u netbook (which is on the list) without serious problems, when I tried it on a Sony VGN series Vaio notebook (which is not on the list), it didn't have keyboard functionality when it came back up out of sleep mode, which made it nearly useless.

Jolicloud's interface

The main screen consists of a set of shortcut icons for your currently installed apps, a search box up top and a set of option buttons. The buttons are used for installing new apps, reading other Jolicloud users' activity streams, browsing the file system or making changes to system settings. If you're using Jolicloud with an online storage service like Dropbox, there's a whole subsection of the interface just for those services.

Jolicloud comes with a variety of applications, including the VLC media player, the OpenOffice.org suite, the Pidgin IM client, the Linux client for Skype, and Web services like Twitter, Facebook and Gmail. If you want more, adding apps is as simple as typing a name in the search box and then clicking "install." If you have more than one machine registered in your Jolicloud account, your app installs are synchronized across machines whenever there's a network connection.

This is where I started to run into a farrago of snags that makes Jolicloud a tough sell as a completed Version 1 rather than a beta Linux distro. Some apps, such as the VLC media player, produced error messages when they launched (but ran normally afterward). Others, like the Google Chrome browser, didn't launch at all.

Why not? Because if I clicked on the launch icon for Chrome, Jolicloud opened Chromium instead. Chromium is the open-source project that is the basis for Google Chrome and the Google Chrome OS. Chromium is installed by default in Jolicloud and is used for many common system tasks in much the same way Windows has Internet Explorer preinstalled.

However, Chrome offers a number of features that Chromium does not, including H.264/AAC/MP3 decoding, crash reporting and others -- which is why users may prefer to use Chrome as their primary browser. According to a company rep, Jolicloud is investigating how to solve this problem.

The biggest problem with the way Jolicloud deals with programs is almost philosophical: Web sites (like Facebook) are listed as "apps" alongside actual programs (like OpenOffice.org). If you have no network access, there's no indication that Web-based apps will be unavailable. You have to launch them and see what happens. Sometimes you get whatever content was cached from that site; sometimes you just get a "Page unavailable" error.

Jolicloud
Adding applications to and and removing them from Jolicloud. Note the "in-progress" balloon.

Other problems abound. There's no easy way to do peer-to-peer/mesh networking between Jolicloud and other local computers, even if they're running Jolicloud as well. Power management options are flaky too -- pressing the hardware power button has no effect, not even on the netbook, which was on the compatibility list.

Even the on-screen power button was problematic: Click it when you have a window open from most apps, and the power-button prompt appears behind the other window. (There's no hibernate option available, by the way, even if your hardware supports it.)

Putting these issues aside, Jolicloud is pretty solid for conventional browsing or light word-processing tasks. I didn't have trouble connecting to my in-house network or reading my favorite Web sites, with or without Flash. Jolicloud didn't seem appreciably faster than Windows 7 on the same hardware -- it had slightly faster boot times (about 20 seconds to get to the log-in screen, as opposed to Windows 7's times of 25 to 30 seconds), but it took a few more seconds to come up out of sleep mode. Apps on both systems launched and ran about as quickly.

A work in progress

When I wrote to the folks at Jolicloud and described many of these issues, they confirmed that most of them (such as the Chrome/Chromium problem) are known about and being worked on. That said, it's tough to recommend Jolicloud in its current form; the next release should give us a better idea of how it'll evolve, and how useful it will truly become.

Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for more than 15 years for a variety of publications, including InformationWeek and Windows Magazine.

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