Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ditch the Computer for the Net - Not!

I have been fooling around with Internet desktops for a little while now. Two in particular have floated to the top of the heap, Desktoptwo and Jooce (pronounced like juice). While they have the same fundamental goals, the approach is quite different.

When looking at Internet desktops it's important to understand why anyone would want these. Basically, they claim to allow you to become free of your desktop computer or laptop. In other words, you can access your "Desktop" from any browser, presumably even on a smart phone. That is an attractive option for people who need to access files and applications from different computers and devices. If I'm visiting my family in Florida, I could, in theory, access my desktop remotely. But, as Yogi Berra once said, "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." So, I'm skeptical.

Both Jooce and Desktoptwo (and all other Internet desktops) allow you to have personal communications and storage in your virtual desktop. That seems to be the core of it. It sounds like a nice idea until you consider the following:

  1. Lot's of options exist for accessing files through on-line storage applications. Dropbox and XDrive are two I use regularly. Specialty services also exist such as Flicr and Google Picasa for pictures. Do I need another place to store and share files?
  2. They continue to rely in some fashion on local machines. Jooce especially only has the ability to display or run media files such as audio, video, or pictures, and do instant messaging. Desktoptwo comes with more applications including a version of OpenOffice and a PDF reader but no video capability. Applications can't be installed on your on-line desktop. You are completely dependent on what is provided as part of the desktop or some other site on the internet. If I can keep my documents on Google Docs or Zoho, and my pictures on Flicr, do I need this?
  3. The same problems exist as with all on-line applications, especially its unavailability if you are lacking a network connection or the desktop service company's servers are down.
  4. I don't see how you can make real money. Desktoptwo has ads that are exceptionally annoying but I never read them. The fact is, they seem out of place on a desktop. This was true ten years ago in the age of Pointcast and other push media. Jooce doesn't have any ads at all. Maybe they hope to sell the software to ISVs...

There are real differences between Jooce and Desktoptwo that, unfortunately, highlight the problems of virtual desktops. To that end, I welcome you to enjoy these mini-reviews of each. Keep in mind, both are officially in Beta so, to be fair, these are preliminary comments.


I like the look and feel of Jooce. It has a Gnome-like (as in Linux/Gnome interface) look that, while a bit cute, is at least visually appealing. You can customize the desktop a bit with your own wallpaper which is nice. Jooce actually gives you two desktops - a private one and a public one. The public one allows you to share files with other Jooce users. Switching and sharing files between them is easy.

Jooce is very media-centric. While you can upload (there's that tether to the local machine again) and store any files you want it only has applications for audio, video, and graphics files. While this is very limited, they are integrated into the desktop seamlessly. For example, if you open a picture, it appears on you desktop as a photo or picture that you tossed on your desktop. Neat! Audio just plays without appearing to launch a separate application. This is the true innovation of Jooce. It strives to create a desktop where applications are part of the desktop and not separate from it. This is also a weakness since the number of applications is limited (to the above add an IM application that can connect to major services and that's all) and even if available would be hard to integrate so seamlessly. They are promising e-mail soon but even viewing a PDF requires that the viewer be part of your local browser environment and hence your local machine. Go to a machine that doesn't understand PDF and where you are not allowed to install a viewer and you can't access your files.

Jooce has promise as a way to store and share files but it is still anchored to the resources available on the local machine a bit too much.


Desktop two has a more conventional look and feel. It has lots of conventional looking (kind of a KDE-ish) icons on a conventional looking desktop. It is best described as flat and uninteresting. It does have more applications including the suite, e-mail, calendar, RSS reader, IM, a website editor, blogging tool, and a PDF viewer, though I can't find a video player.

It is unbelievably slow. Slow to start up, slow to load applications, and slow to upload files. Worse yet, it often appears to be uploading files but they don't appear on the "hard drive". It appears that it it can take so long to transfer a file, especially a large one, that it is unclear that it is actually happening. This makes it too easy to start an upload, assume that something mysterious has occurred and shut down the desktop before it can fully upload the file. And the ads are really annoying.

The interface is also Flash-based which generates weird error messages. For example, while trying to empty my trash bin I got an error message telling me that the script was taking too long in this "movie". I know that is because of the roots of Flash as a media scripting applications but it is out of place here.

So, Jooce hasn't enough juice yet to be useful and Desktoptwo, in trying to be a full fledged computer in a virtual, on-line space, is slow and ponderous. The edge goes to Jooce, however, for its look and feel. In fact, I would like to have the interface on my regular desktop or phone. It is, at best, an adjunct for a real desktop but that's enough. Desktoptwo seems to be shooting for the corporate market for virtual desktops. It's got a ways to go then.

I like the idea of a desktop that runs in a browser which gives me basic functions no matter what platform I'm running it on (including a phone). On-line desktops have a while to go before that is a reality. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

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