Just don’t call it a Web OS

When Richard MacManus published an overview of the so-called Web OS market almost a year ago, he said, “a lot of people don’t consider a WebOS to be a real operating system, but I think that’s semantics and not something worth debating.” It seems many developers of these web-based windowing and application platforms agree with him and position their wares accordingly.

Semantics aside, there are good reasons to question whether offerings such as YouOS, EyeOS, Xcerion (which calls itself an “Internet OS”) and others like them should be named after the software category that launched a $280 billion company. Sometimes they are more modestly called webtops, a name that might at once calm the hype and show what they’re really aiming at: putting a desktop facade of questionable benefit onto the web.

The most ambitious Web OS offerings seek to create a Windows or Mac-style desktop that works with data in the cloud. Let’s take YouOS as an example:

YouOS is a new type of platform for web applications. We’re trying to build a single place from which you can access your data, and run a multitude of applications, written by anyone in the YouOS network. Ultimately, we want the data and apps on YouOS to be accessible not only through any browser, but from any number of devices. Your stuff, anywhere, anytime, anyhow. It’s still early, but that’s our vision.

But importing the desktop paradigm into the cloud, onto the Web, represents a step backwards — not one we should crown with a name full of such promise and history as “operating system.” The current architecture of the Web is “small pieces loosely joined” yet none of these webtops appear to hew to such an architecture, except within themselves. They don’t integrate applications and data from across the Web but seek instead to bring the user into an entirely new environment with an entirely new set of applications.

Ajax start pages like yourminis, Netvibes, and Pageflakes overlap in intent and function with the Web OS offerings, the difference being that a Web OS includes a full development environment and often email clients and other desktop software replacements.

Ajax start pages don’t replace the web development paradigm and they integrate pieces from all over. No one — developer, user, investor — will be misled into thinking that Ajax start pages are going to take over the desktop or the Web. A “start page” promises only what it delivers: a beginning for your work and your browsing not a desktop-style replacement.