Web OS: Still in the early stages

Internet-based interoperabilty, security, backup -- all are on their way

Someday, in the not-too-distant-future, the Web will likely function more like an operating system than the current collection of disassociated sites. With a Web OS, Web applications will communicate with each other, you will sign on to use services and applications just once and you will be able to easily back up data from one site onto another.

In this model most users won't need desktop applications at all.

Some users are already starting to enter this world by running multiple tabs in their browser of choice and by using emerging single-sign-on standards including OAuth and OpenID.

Of course, the concept of a Web OS is not new. In 2006, YouOS provided a platform for Web applications, but the developers couldn't find a use for it. In a prescient post from that era, one commenter named maxklein said he wanted "quick and convenient applications [where] the OS itself is totally irrelevant." And back in 2002, technology guru Tim O'Reilly wrote about the Web OS, predicting better interconnectedness between applications.

In the past 10 years, attempts have included Bell Labs' Plan 9 project and MyWebOS. Neither achieved real commercial success.

What most of these projects did not address, though, is the underlying code base -- the connections among applications, no matter which Web site they reside on. Now, new standards such as OAuth, OpenID and OpenSocial are paving the way for a more successful Web OS, one that will make online computing even more robust.

For its part, for all the publicity around Google's Linux-based Chrome OS, all indications are that the upcoming Chrome will be more a netbook and desktop OS similar to Intel's Moblin distribution for Linux. It may also work like JoliCloud, which provides links to Web applications.

What is a Web OS?

In its most basic sense, an operating system controls input-output functions -- what happens, for instance, when you connect a USB keyboard to the PC or copy files from one drive to another. These days, an OS such as Windows Vista, Mac OS X or Ubuntu Linux goes well beyond these core functions, handling memory allocations for applications such as Word or Photoshop and a spate of other tasks.

Today, the vast majority of Web users sign on to each site independently and rarely exchange data among applications. In some ways, the Web is still operating as it did in 1998, when sites did not communicate well with one another or share data. With a Web OS, online applications would operate more like they do on the desktop: allow for seamless data exchange among applications on many sites, provide well-established security protocols and support backups among cloud providers instead of just from your PC to the cloud.

However, most experts agree that the traditional desktop model does not translate well to the Web because there are literally thousands of Web applications. Instead, the Web OS is more about interoperability among these applications. (For more about current Web OS projects, see the sidebar, right.)

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