Is the World Ready for a Web-Based Desktop?

Opinion: Michael Robertson, founder of and Linspire, a Linux distributor, thinks the world is ready for a 'virtual' desktop on the Web. Is he right?

Whatever else you can say about multimillionaire technology entrepreneur Michael Robertson—the founder of; Linspire, a Linux distributor; and SIPhone, a VOIP company, to name but a few—he has chutzpah. In each of his business ventures, hes taken on giants, such as the music industry, Microsoft and Vonage. Now, with AjaxWindows, hes at it again, with Microsoft once more in his sights.

AjaxWindows, according to Robertson, is a "complete virtual PC you can experience using only a browser from any Web-connected computer." Linux, Windows, Mac OS—AjaxWindows doesnt care what your actual desktop runs, so long as youre running a modern browser—Firefox 2.0x for choice—Robertson claims youll be able to use it.

Of course, theres nothing new about this idea. In fact, you could say, it goes all the way back to terminals using time-sharing to access mainframes. Of course, now we have gigabytes of storage instead of kilobytes of storage and instead of one central computer, your processing power can live across a half-dozen data centers around the country.

More recently, everyone has been jumping on the 21st century rebuild, SAAS (software as a service), of this 1950s computing model. Single-purpose business companies like CRM (customer relationship management) powerhouse have shown that SAAS can be very profitable. Old technology companies like Symantec are also giving SAAS the eye.

Microsoft, as usual, isnt quite sure what to do with SAAS. Oh sure, Ballmer is cheerleading for Microsoft SAAS for its partners, but Kevin Turner, Microsofts chief operating officer, has admitted that Microsoft is still trying to figure out how to make money from SAAS and its Live strategies. "We did not, and still do not, have those completely figured out," said Turner.

Robertson doesnt have that problem. He said, "When you set up an AjaxWindows computer, youll have the ability to sync essential data from your existing computer to create your virtual PC in its likeness. Core information like documents, bookmarks, contacts, wallpaper and even your music can be copied to your AjaxWindows computer. This is a handy way to back up your files even if youre not interested in a virtual computer.

"You will also be able to completely customize AjaxWindows," he continued. "For instance you can select the default search engine, home page and Webmail you prefer. My goal is to have a desktop experience that lets you combine the best of all Net resources into one seamless experience."

To make all this happen, Roberson relies some on his own services, such as enabling users to store music files in his MP3tunes Locker. But hes not trying to reinvent the wheel. For document storage, AjaxWindows uses Googles Gmail. Dont have one or the other? AjaxWindows will automatically create an MP3tunes account for you, and it will guide you through the Gmail setup if you dont have an account.

This isnt just a mashup of existing services. Robertson also offers new office programs like AjaxWrite for documents and AjaxPresents for presentations. Robertson claims that these applications can work with Microsoft Office file formats.

AjaxWindows sounds rather interesting, but I have my doubts about it. Theres nothing wrong with the technology side. AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) has already shown itself to work well for creating Web 2.0 applications. And, when I can get 3M-bps DSL on a mountainside in western North Carolina, theres certainly enough broadband out there to make a virtual desktop a real possibility.

Lets think about this for a minute though. I can either use AjaxWrite, at 3M bps, or I can use OpenOffice 2.2 on my HP A6040N Pavilion Desktop PC running SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) 10 SP 1 with its 3G-bps hard drive. I think Ill go with the thousand times faster local drive.

Im also pretty darn sure no ones getting into my local hard drive. Im none too sure about the safety of my data as it runs from my local desktop a remote drive in some data center somewhere.

Ive been trying to install AjaxWindows. The site is currently swamped. My PC? With 2GB of RAM, I have yet to put a significant burden on it even though I always have at least three Firefox windows open, the Evolution mail client, the GAIM 1.5 IM client, the Banshee music player, OpenOffice and, for my ODF-less (Open Document Format) friends, a copy of Word 2003 running on Linux thanks to CrossOver Office 6.1.

Now, part of whats going on is, of course, everyone wants to try AjaxWindows, since its just been released. Still, remember that throughput comparison of mine? Even if AjaxWindows was faster than fast, 3M bps isnt going to cut it for my power user proposes. 3G bps can do it without breaking into a sweat.

Now, where SAAS does make sense is when you want to share work. For that, though, Ive already found an answer that works well: Google Apps. This isnt just my opinion. IT consulting powerhouse Capgemini has just announced that it will be offering Google Apps Premier Edition to its enterprise customers. With this one deal, about a million or so Fortune 500 desktops have just been opened up for Google Apps. Not a bad deal, eh?

And, this? This is what Robertson is going up against? No, in the past Robertson jumped on technology waves before people realized there was a major technology change coming. He then rode those waves for enough millions to begin another startup for the next wave. This time, however, hes too late. The SAAS Web 2.0 wave has already passed, and Robertson is caught in the lull.

There will be popular online desktops. But I expect it to be the next generation of Google Apps, not AjaxOffice. When all is said and done, no matter how important these thin desktops become, I still expect most people to get most of their work done on fat-client desktops with fat office applications. What wont surprise me though is that those desktops are increasingly going to be based on Linux, and the office suites will be built around OpenOffice rather than Microsofts offerings.


Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.