Computer in the Cloud

Online desktop systems could bridge the digital divide.

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.

Familiar feel: Sapotek’s Desktop Two, shown above, is built to have the familiar look and feel of popular operating systems such as Microsoft Windows. It includes Sun’s Open Office suite as well as a variety of open-source applications developed by Sapotek.

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,, 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 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.

Desktop Two isn’t the only company working in this arena. For example, the online desktop service Zimdesk is also designed to provide users with the familiar look and feel of a traditional desktop. Simon Martin, the company’s technical director, says that this type of system is lightweight because, once an application programmed in Flash is open in the user’s browser, it functions as any other Web page, and it doesn’t put continued pressure on the server until it is saved.

Current online desktops were preceded by a system called Tarantella, launched in the late 1990s by the Santa Cruz Operation. Doug Michels, cofounder and former CTO of the Santa Cruz Operation, says that Tarantella intended to be “a universal gateway to the Internet way of computing.” The idea didn’t really catch on with the masses, in part due to a lack of Internet penetration at the time and the dot-com crash, Michels says. “I think the market is very ready for it right now.”

Sun acquired Tarantella two years ago, and the system’s heir is now known as Sun Secure Global Desktop. Although Sun Secure Global Desktop has much in common with systems such as Desktop Two, it is marketed to companies rather than to individuals. The system requires a central server running applications that it then transmits over the Internet to individual users. It can run any application, but the streamed applications require more resources from server and client than those required by most online desktops.

Michels says that he expects the younger generation to be more willing to adopt the computer-in-the-cloud idea than people were 10 years ago because of young people’s familiarity and comfort with Web-mail systems and other forms of cloud computing currently in use. “That generation grew up with the notion that desktops don’t matter,” he says.

Although right now, the number of applications available through online desktops is limited, both Desktop Two and Zimdesk are working with developers to add applications to their systems.

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