My data lies over the ocean

 

"Congratulations, you are among the first to join the revolution in web-based computing. Thank you for taking the time to join our mailing list. . . We look forward to having you as a member and we hope that you are as excited about the future of myWebOS as we are." - (www.mywebos.com)

The last two months have seen a flurry of announcements about web-based computing. The promoters want to do for word-processing, spreadsheets and databases what HotMail did for email - make them all accessible from a web browser.

Instead of buying a program, installing it on a computer and running it from there these people want us to connect up to their sites and run their programs over the Net. There are some immediate attractions. Users could access their own files and programs from anywhere in the world, using almost any type of computer, instead of managing a snarling pack of applications sitting on a PC and waiting for a chance to bite each other.

Information technology managers may want to take the installation and management hassles off their users' desktops but balk at handing them to an outside company to manage. In this case, a company could buy programs that have been proved to work over the Net an bring them in-house to a company application server.

Either way, the focus shifts far from the buy-and-install model that has prevailed since the invention of the PC.

At www.desktop.com anyone who signs up gets a Windows-like desktop with several simple programs and games. In fact, the games (including Desktris, chess and hangman) are more polished than the work applications (outliner, on-screen sticky notes, text editor). But, like the old saw about the elephant on the bicycle, the surprising thing is that they work at all. It is pretty amazing to work in an environment created with JavaScript and beamed across the Atlantic and find it usable.

Sitting on a company network that has a half-megabit connection to the Net the performance is sluggish, but acceptable. Log on from home with a 56K modem and it takes a nasty dive. This is particularly noticeable on first loading the desktop, but opening files and programs suffers also. The magic thing, though, is that the desktop appears just as you last left it - half-played games, sticky notes and all.

Over at www.mywebos.com the show is just getting started. Led by 25-year-old chief executive Shervin Pishevar and 18-year-old programmer Fredrik Malmer, this company claims that it has developed ways of making Web-based applications actually run faster than locally installed ones.

Pishevar has called his operating system, and the office suite being developed to run on it, a "disruptive technology" that will change the way software is distributed. The Financial Times recently reported that he may be Bill Gates's worst nightmare "an extraordinarily bright young man with radical ideas about software, a passion to change the world and a business plan."

Alongside these start-up companies - which have attracted millions of dollars in funding and the backing of figures as significant as Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus - the industry heavyweights are weighing in.

Sun is giving away a full suite of office programs at www.sun.com /staroffice and plans to have the same programs available as Web applications early next year. This suite has more features than anything offered by the two start-ups so far but it is still a locally installed program.

Last week Oracle proclaimed that "people are no longer visiting the Windows desktop to get access to their applications and the information needed to do their jobs . . . businesses are now realising that they need portal sites inside their organisations that provide access to essential business information and applications. . ."

Its answer is a "portlet" that wraps programs and data into a form suitable for access through a browser. "Any corporate application or information" can be handled, promises Oracle.

Also last week, Lotus announced a set of tools to allow developers to create their own web-based applications. Its Domino Application Studio costs £698 plus VAT and includes a range of tools for building standards-based web applications. See www.lotus- developer.com for details.

Spoken or unspoken, built into many of these initiatives is a desire to oust Microsoft from its pre-eminent position in PC operating systems and applications. The Redmond giant is not going to go quietly. Hard on the heels of the Sun announcement, Microsoft said that it would release tools to move at least some of its Office suite towards running over the Web, while simultaneously pouring cold water on StarOffice.

Faced with a challenge like this in the past (people's preference for the Internet over the Microsoft Network, Netscape's domination of the browser market) Microsoft has moved very quickly to squash any threat by outdoing the new pretenders at their own game.

If many of us end up using Web-based applications in a couple of years' time, chances are that they will be those of Bill Gates.