A Desktop for Web Computing

A new website offers another take on moving personal computing online.

Personal computing is steadily migrating to the Web, as people use sites like Facebook and Flickr to store photos, videos, and other files they previously would have stored on a PC. A startup called ZeroPC hopes to provide the desktop for the Web computing revolution–a page that looks and acts like a desktop interface, from which users can access all of their content wherever it is stored online.

Online access: ZeroPC’s interface, accessible through any modern Web browser, gives users a desktop for managing media stored in different sites across the Web.

A user logging in to ZeroPC is presented with an interface much like Microsoft Windows: icons on a desktop that provide access to files stored in folders and to applications for e-mailing, document editing, and more. But the desktop is delivered using the same technologies used to build interactive Web applications.

ZeroPC’s file browser provides a way to manage all of the photos, videos, and other content uploaded to sites including Facebook, Flickr, and Google Docs as if they were in different folders on a local hard drive. A user can, for example, select several photos hosted on Facebook and drag them into a Flickr folder. Behind the scenes, ZeroPC logs in to those services and copies the files between the sites.

“We can help unscatter everything that people have spread across the Web,” says Richard Sah, a vice president at ZeroPC, which launched at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco last week. “To the user, there is no difference between content stored on different sites.”

Although Sah and his colleagues hope the new service will attract consumers wishing to consolidate their online lives, ZeroPC will also be pitched at schools in the U.S. and overseas because the service can run on any computer or tablet with a modern browser, reducing the need for hardware and software upgrades, says Sah. A single computer can be used by any number of people to access their accounts.

“For people in developing countries who have to share a computer, it brings a lot of convenience,” says Sah. “This can achieve one-desktop-per-child without needing to provide one piece of hardware per child,” he adds, alluding to the One Laptop Per Child project, which aims to create low-cost devices to widen access to computing.

ZeroPC was founded by Young Song, who also founded NComputing, a company that provides low-cost boxes that connect a monitor, mouse, and keyboard to a copy of a Windows or Linux operating system running on a remote server. ZeroPC’s desktop is less powerful than what NComputing’s boxes provide, but it can be distributed and accessed without dedicated hardware.

Companies have tried before to make Web-based desktops, but these attempts were less fully featured than ZeroPC’s, because Web standards were less powerful, and there were fewer widely used Web services to link up.

Neverware, a startup in New York City, has built cloud-based software that lets users access the latest version of Windows using outdated computers in schools. The company’s founder, Jonathan Hefter, says that services like ZeroPC’s and others show that computers needn’t become obsolete as fast as is often assumed.

“Whether by using the cloud or a browser, we are all proving that all of these computers out there have not been used to their maximum capacity,” says Hefter. “We are bucking the traditional thinking that four years is all you can get out of these machines.”

However, although ZeroPC’s desktop experience is closely modeled on Windows and is compatible with it, it isn’t the same thing, notes Hefter. “By allowing full Windows 7 on old machines, we are extending the current framework that schools use, such as software that only runs on Windows,” he says.

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