Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Online Desktop

There has been a lot of buzz about the online desktop. The online desktop is something that I have been skeptical of. I have recently given some online Google apps a try, and so far I like it. In fact, I like it a lot. I am now convinced that there is very little that really needs to be local on the desktop. I have been imaging where the online desktop could go and how it could work. I think what we need is for programmers to start utilizing and building the online desktop to it's extent. The following is a rough idea of how I think the online desktop could be a seamless and pleasant experience for the end user.

In a true online desktop, when you boot up your computer and sign in your local computer would have your whole online profile stored localy that automatically starts connecting to online services.



At the top (or bottom, or wherever you want it) of your screen you would have a bar. This would allow you to access local services. In this example we see a typical Ubuntu/Gnome Linux toolbar. In the top-left we have menus so we can easily make changes to our system or access locally isntalled programs. Under places we may have access to all sorts of content. Our bookmarks/favorites will all be in here, as well as access to local and networked drives.
Then we have a shortcut to the terminal window, again for local administration.
Next we have a place to type in a URL. If everything is properly integrated this should actually be used less-and-less. We may have services that automatically take us to our desired pages. So if we want to access our pictures, we may select "My Pictures" under Places and it will take us to pacaseweb.google.com or to flickr.com, depending on the user's preferences. The important thing is that the user can select the services he or she uses, but it is all accessed via the internet.
Next we have some icons representing the status of some local and online services. The first icon is the Google Desktop icon we use so that even when we are searching our local drives we do it via an html web-like service.
The second icon is our skype web-telephone icon. The normal status shows us that we are connected and have no incoming calls or messages. Even our phone service easily becomes an online experience that we can access anywhere we have an internet connection without worrying about our location.
Third the GMail notifyer shows us we don't have any mail. It would be blue if we did. What would be better would be an icon that could connect to an POP or IMAP service and show us the status of our e-mail regardless of our provider. A simple click, or double-click, could take us to our online provider.
The rest of the icons show us the status of local services, UPS status, wireless status, volume, date/time (this is actually updated periodcally from an NTP server ensuring accurate reporting), and a logout/shutdown button.
This could probably be streamlined to provide a much more streamlined, online experience.
Below our menu bar we would have tabs, like what is provided in Firefox, Opera, and IE7. Each tab would be a different web page. Certain web pages could be made to open automatically upon computer boot. Ideally you would have one configurable page that would allow you to put your important services together. A great example of this is Google's igoogle. With igoogle you can have all of your RSS feeds, news, mail status, calendar, and much more all on one page. Further services could be added to bring you even closer to your physical desktop. Widgits could be configured that show all local hard drives and allow you to browse their content right in you web browser. Another could show you the status of things such as attached cameras (and allow you to pull photos directly from your camera to your online images), music (purchased through various online retailers such as, but not limited to itunes), videos (youtube.com, google videos, etc.) and anything else.
So with all of this, why would anyone want to do everything online? The two biggest reasons are accessability and data backup. When you use online services, you can have a relatively seamless computer experience anywhere you go. And if for some reason you have computer problems, including hard drive failure, your data is (hopefully) safely stored by a 3rd party online content provider.
Most tasks most commonly performed on a local computer are now available as online services. I would predict the following are the most often performed tasks on a computer:
  1. Writing a paper. This is usually done in Microsoft Word or Open Office. http://docs.google.com/ has a great online office suite supporting word processing and spreadsheets.
  2. Listening to music. This may be harder to turn in to an online service because of the RIAA, but it could easily become an online service such as youtube where you can upload your ripped CDs or music purchased through online service and then listen to it based on your login. There are already various online radio services, but the RIAA and other organisations are trying hard to kill these off.
  3. Watching videos. Youtube.com and videos.google.com are the two most popular ways of doing this currently. There are countless other web sites that provide the exact same service to varying degrees of quality. The current problem is a way to upload your own legally purchased videos so that only you can watch them.
  4. Playing games. Online games are clearly not up to par with cutting edge video games, and it is unlikely that the likes of Halo 3 will be an online Java or Flash game anytime soon, or that any cutting edge game could easily be provided via a small download online. But for those of us content with the online flash games to play things like Tetris, pinball, etc. the online experience is actually pretty good.
  5. Manage finances. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge there is not ane online version of Quicken or Microsoft Money. This may be a good thing though.

The easier we integrate these services into online applications that become seemless with the desktop experience, the easier and more useful we make the whole computer experience. We are already to the point where many users don't pay attention to the difference of what is a local service and an online service. If we put it all online, make it accessible from anywhere then we really empower ourselves to have all our information on the go and sharable within an instant.