Desktop Choices: Mac, Linux, Windows, Browser -- Browser?

by Kenneth Hess

Cover Your Assets: You have a fourth choice for your desktop operating system, but it seems to be a well-kept secret.

When the operating system wars subside, the only thing left standing may be the lowly Internet browser. The only operating system you'll have is a miniature one with just enough ability to connect you to a network, the Internet and to fire up a browser. Your entire computing life may well exist in the cloud. Viruses and spyware will no longer haunt your dreams or plague your daytime work hours. Your entire desktop, your shortcuts, your documents, your vacation pictures and your calendar will be a browser click away — no matter where you are — no matter whose computer you use and, for those who live and die by their mobile devices, it won't matter which they use.

If using an Internet browser-based desktop operating system brings all this freedom and power, why can't you have it now instead of five years from now? You can. And that's the best kept secret in the business.

Virtualizing Your Desktop

There's no shortage of information covering vendor virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) rhetoric these days, but what's missing is some valuable information you need to know. VDI is a transitional technology that bridges the traditional fat and bloated desktop system to its sleek and agile web-based future.

Note, however, that the vendors themselves don't use VDI, so don't buy into it if they don't. VDI doesn't live up to its grand promises because no vendor currently provides the virtual machine density required if you are to save any money adopting the technology. You'll spend more money and create some very unhappy users by adopting that technology.

The inexpensive alternative is web-based desktop systems. They won't work for everyone, but those who adopt them will likely be satisfied.

Exploring Your Options

Web-based desktops offer flexibility, mobility and freedom — freedom from worry that documents won't be available, freedom from hardware failures and freedom from the high cost of desktop maintenance and support. What you experience with your new web-based operating system is exactly what you'd expect whether you use Mac, Linux or Windows — icons, applications, tools, games, media players and control panels. It provides a fully functional desktop that's all yours, all private and always available.

There are several from which to choose but I've distilled down the choices to the best of breed in the web-based desktop category.

First up is Always On PC. Sweet and secure, Always On PC presents you with a full Linux GNOME desktop environment with 2GB of storage via a Java-based Virtual Network Computing (VNC) console. It's a full-blown desktop system, and it's Linux. If you aren't a Linux user, you might want to pass on this one. However, if your heart belongs to Linux, you're set.

Next, is the Global Hosted Operating System or Ghost. Ghost is an exciting Web 2.0 application that emulates a desktop operating system. With this one, you almost forget that you're using a browser application as your desktop. Once you sign up for the service, you not only receive your new desktop but you also get an e-mail address @g.ho.st, which is geeky cool. Ghost offers the usual desktop but adds in Zoho Writer, Sheets and Show applications for productivity. You also have a generous 3GB of space with which to work. Ghost is worth a trial run for anyone considering web-based desktops.

My personal favorite among these is the StartForce web-based operating system. Its sleek design reminds me of Windows XP, and its office suite (Kingsoft Office) applications look and behave exactly like their Microsoft Office 2007 counterparts. StartForce's desktop is snappy and feels like a real desktop. You'll probably notice some hesitation when starting the office suite applications because they are Java-based and therefore a little sluggish. Once they're up and running, you'll forget all about how long you had to wait. I highly recommend checking into StartForce for your hosted desktop solution. Stoneware's webOS is a commercial venture that puts web-based desktops within reach into your own private cloud. The web-based operating system is speedy, sleek and well done. This one seems like a simulated Windows Vista that works the way Vista wants to work. Stoneware's webOS feels good to use and is worth a look for those of you who don't trust public cloud offerings.

Finally, iCloud's operating system is clearly a Web 2.0 Vista clone. All iCloud applications are XML-based. If you're handy with XML, you're free to build your own widgets. The Application Designer, which is right on the desktop, makes it easy for you to do just that. The iCloud desktop is fast and cute, but I'm not sure it would stand up to corporate scrutiny, although it includes everything you'd need to use, including a Money Manager application that looks and feels like its commercial cousins. iCloud is worth a look, but realize that it might be better suited to home users and hobbyists than corporate types.

Using Your Mobile Desktop

For mobile gadget users who must have more than just a phone in your pocket, Ghost offers G.ho.st Lite, and Always On PC is a boon to iPhone owners. G.ho.st Lite uses any mobile device browser, whereas the Always On PC iPhone application that turns your iPhone into a pocket computer runs only on the iPhone. Check out the possibilities on the front pages of their respective web sites.

Web-based desktops are the future of desktop computing. Ask anyone who has a clear vision of the future, and you'll hear the same thing. If you take a tour of these web-based systems and like what you see, connect with a thin client vendor that offers terminals with built-in browsers and explain what your plan is for them. Chances are good you'll become the subject of a vendor white paper, customer testimonial or perhaps even end up profiled in a writer's column. There's no time like the present to enjoy what the future has to offer.

Write back and tell us about your experiences with these web-based systems or others that you've found.

Ken Hess is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of open source topics including Linux, databases, and virtualization. You may reach him through his web site at http://www.kenhess.com.

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This article was originally published on Friday Aug 14th 2009
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