The idea is to wed Web-based computing with offline functionality and an application marketplace similar to Apple's App Store.
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Xcerion, a Swedish cloud computing startup, opened its icloud service to public beta testing Tuesday.
Icloud is an online application and storage service that runs atop an XML-based virtual machine. It's designed to provide a location-independent virtual desktop computing environment that co-exists with a developer ecosystem for XML-based applications. The idea is to wed the Web-based computing with offline functionality and an application marketplace similar to Apple's iTunes App Store.
"Icloud provides 3GB of free cloud drive storage for everyone, developers as well as for regular consumers and small businesses," Xcerion CEO Daniel Arthursson explained in an e-mail. "The basic service is free for everyone to use, but premium accounts exist with additional storage space in different sizes for a monthly fee. The vision of icloud is to become the PC for everyone without a PC. This is meant both literally for people using Internet cafes today, but also for people that are moving away from the PC into smarter devices like netbooks, smartphones, and surf pads, embracing the promise of cloud computing as their PC."
Xcerion was founded in 2001 and has been working since then to create the icloud environment and its XIOS (Xcerion Internet Operating System) infrastructure.
The company is funded by Swedish VC firm Northzone Ventures; Lou Perazzoli, one of the original architects of Windows NT and former general manager of the Microsoft Core OS group; John Connors, a partner at Ignition Partners and former CFO and CIO of Microsoft; and Terry Drayton, founder and former CEO of HomeGrocer.com.
Presently available in English, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Swedish, and Filipino, icloud offers 30 free applications, including Write, Calendar, Mail, Contacts, iPlay, Movie, and Photos. It also includes 20 free widgets and a WebDAV backup application.
Currently, icloud works with Internet Explorer, with limited support for Firefox.
"Firefox is a very high priority for us," said Arthursson. "It's the first step in our device convergence mission. Right now we have been using icloud on Linux-based netbooks running Firefox. It is quite amazing to be able to drag a window from icloud on a Windows laptop into the screen of your Linux Netbook and continue to work in the application. Other browsers may be supported as soon as they have more functionality around vector-based graphics and XML."
Xcerion is working on a marketplace that will enable developers to publish their applications and offer them for free, with ad support, or for a fee. The company will charge 25% of revenue, whether from ads or sales. As a point of comparison, Apple charges 30% of an application's sale price through iTunes. Xcerion's hope is that it can attract a vibrant developer community.
Arthursson said icloud differs from other cloud-based services like Google App Engine or Force.com. Because it's built around an XML virtual machine, which makes use of local processing power, icloud apps consume less bandwidth, use less data center processing power, and require fewer server roundtrips, he said. The result, he maintains, is a more cost-effective and responsive user experience.
Icloud also provides virtualization at the application level rather than at the server operating system level, like most cloud services, Arthursson said. "This means that icloud and its applications are prepared for device convergence, being able to run icloud applications on future smartphones, digital-TV set top boxes, and surf pads," he explained. "As soon as the icloud XML Virtual Machine has been ported to new devices, its applications will work seamlessly on them."
Arthursson expects XP and Linux-based netbooks will become a significant market for icloud because the service's WebDAV support makes file synchronization across devices easy. He also anticipates Linux netbooks that boot into the icloud environment. At present, however, he wasn't ready to name any potential distribution partners.
Early on in 2005 when icloud was in closed development, investor Perazzoli told Arthursson the service was too slow. The service was originally supposed to launch in the third quarter of 2007, but performance issues delayed open beta until now.
Arthursson said that the major challenge has been making icloud work as well worldwide as it does in Sweden without building data centers all over the world. "We have had to reconsider many technical solutions in icloud to reduce bandwidth usage and build in support for content delivery networks," he said. "We have recently started to work with Akamai, giving us access to 25,000 servers worldwide."
He said that additional work has gone into making the XML virtual machine handle more computation locally. "This is still a work in progress, but we have definitely been favored in a technological perspective by having our virtual machine and our determination to do most processing client-side," he said.
Now the question is whether developers see a lucrative lining in Xcerion's icloud and whether consumers see enough value to step inside the company's virtual machine.
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