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Christopher Mims

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Are Web Desktops a Way to Turn Tablets Into 'Real' Computers?

ZeroDesktop isn’t the Web desktop you’ve been looking for, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful for untethering from conventional PCs.

  • October 30, 2011

If you’re not in enterprise IT, web desktop platforms are strange beasts. Their purpose is the recreation of the traditional desktop environment inside your web browser. For large organizations that manage thousands of machines with relatively narrow purposes, they make a lot of sense. Hence the popularity of Google’s Chromebook with enterprise customers, on account of it being the ultimate fusion of a purely web-based platform with cheap hardware.

ZeroPC has a consolidated message center (email, Twitter, FB, etc.), a chat client, even a file browser that can access any cloud-based or local drive

But for the average joe or jane, the use cases are limited – maybe you’re traveling without a computer, but you still need to access some files from work? I’ve been playing with one of the better-looking entrants into this field, ZeroPC, and the experience is somewhat underwhelming.

Granted, I’m accessing ZeroPC on someone else’s flaky wifi network. So the fact that I’m able to load ZeroPC’s Microosft Office-compatible “ThinkFree Office” suite is impressive on its own. (Less impressive was its failure to render a simple bar graph in a Powerpoint slide I uploaded to it while testing its abilities.)

ZeroPC’s cloud storage management dashboard

That doesn’t mean ZeroPC is without its charms. For example, it not only provides you with a list of all the cloud storage systems that offer a user free space (DropBox, Box.net, Google Docs, etc.), it also shows you a dashboard measuring your use of each of them. The result is a combined 14 gigabytes of storage, free, and the tools to manage it as if it were a single integrated drive. Neat.

And there may very well be a compelling use-case for ZeroPC: it has the power to transform a tablet like the iPad into something like a Chromebook.

In fact, in November, ZeroPC will release an iPad app intended to do just that – put a “real” desktop on the iPad, complete with windowing, multitasking; everything the iPad doesn’t do now. In my ongoing quest to see whether or not an iPad can be a “real” laptop replacement, I welcome anything that could allow me to access and manipulate all my work files in a single window. We’ll see if ZeroPC’s November release lives up to my expectations.

If anyone else has experience making web desktops work for them, whatever the platform, let me know in the comments – if Chrome OS has any real utility for the average user, maybe a cross-platform alternative can, too.

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