Cloud computing–the idea of relying on Web-based applications and storing data in the “cloud” of the Internet–has long been touted as a way to do business on the road. Now software companies are making entire Web-based operating systems. Built to work like a whole computer in the cloud and aimed at a wider audience, these browser-based services could help those who can’t afford their own computer.
Having the look and feel of Microsoft Windows or other popular desktop programs, the Web-based operating systems bring together a selection of integrated Web-based applications that typically run with Flash or Java. Users can choose to save data locally or on the Internet. Joshua Rand, the CEO of Sapotek, which makes Desktop Two, says that a major goal of an online desktop is to get the collection of applications working together: “It’s not a Tower of Babel desktop. It’s entirely fluent.” Desktop Two uses a number of open-source applications, including Open Office as its productivity suite.
Once a useful group of applications are collected in a familiar format, cloud computing becomes more accessible to people who aren’t comfortable tracking down a series of individual Web applications and combining them, Rand says. Desktop Two’s service is free for individuals, although a small scroll bar of ads appears at the top of the screen. The company launched its Spanish-language version, Computadora.de, in Mexico in 2003, three years before launching in the United States. Rand says that he and his business partner, Oscar Mondragon, who lives in Mexico, had observed while traveling that in spite of socioeconomic differences that determine whether individuals own computers and how much bandwidth they have, people were using the Internet everywhere, including in Internet cafes and libraries. With high levels of Internet penetration and the ubiquity of Flash, he says, it seemed like a good idea “to take the desktop and divorce it from the device.” The result is a system that he says can be used by the large population of computer users worldwide–including students–who may not own a home computer. “One of our visions is to bridge the technological gap,” says Rand. “We have a number of users for whom Desktop Two or Computadora.de is their computer.”
In addition to advertising, Desktop Two makes money by licensing its system to universities and other institutions. Rand says that Universidad del Valle de Mexico and the Mexican branch of MetLife were early customers.
Although hosting a set of desktop applications for thousands of users would seem to put a load on a company’s servers, Rand says that Desktop Two’s system can handle the pressure. Desktop Two now has around 175,000 users worldwide, and Rand says that the system can support about 8,000 to 10,000 of them concurrently. A recent partnership with Sun Startup Essentials provides the company with equipment that should allow it to scale as high as 350,000 users, according to Rajesh Ramchandani, strategic marketing manager for startups at Sun. Ramchandani says that he was interested in Desktop Two in part because its system was so lightweight. “Scalability will never be an issue with the design architecture they have,” he says. He notes that in order to scale, the company can simply add more servers without having to make many adjustments to the software.