Krim doesn't like to call Jolicloud an operating system. But the technology, which is designed to turn Intel-based Netbooks into lightning fast (and easy) HTML5 app machines, shares one key success factor with technologies like the iPhone operating system that "admit" they're OSes: it will need developers to drive its ecosystem. Unfortunately, as ambitious and maybe even as brilliant as Krim's vision is, the technology and business model aren't quite ready for developers to sink their teeth into. Yet.
The way Krim described it to me, the time has come to dispense with traditional thinking when it comes to running cheap notebooks, otherwise known as netbooks. Today, most netbooks run a variant of Microsoft's Windows which, as Krim described it to me, is both a liability and overkill if all you want to do is gain access to the Web and Web applications. It's a "liability" because of the way Windows is still the biggest target for viruses and worms. It's "overkill" because of the bloat you must accept when far less in the way of OS technology is needed to get to the Web (not to mention the additional layer of anti-virus software that's needed to keep a Windows machine safe).
Between the popularity of dirt cheap netbooks and the emergence of HTML5 as a viable and standard platform for interactive Web applications, Krim thinks there's an opportunity to connect the two without the bloat of a traditional OS or even the overhead of newer operating systems like Android (which is largely Java-based). The basic idea is to get netbooks to boot directly to the Web. Much the same way that iPhones can host applications that are written for the iPhone OS and downloaded from Apple's App Store, a netbook running Jolicloud can host HTML5-based applications such as Gmail and Skype that can be downloaded from a similar Jolicloud-operated application marketplace. Another key end-user feature of Jolicloud is how it synchs end-users' configurations to the cloud in a way that any Jolicloud user can step up to a new netbook and be up and running on all of their previously selected applications with minimal effort.
Under the hood, Jolicloud primarily consists of a very lightweight software stack: a tiny Linux kernel that Krim says can boot any Intel-based netbook in about 10 seconds and Google's Chromium-based browser engine (the reason Jolicloud is here at Google I/O). In other words, a netbook running Jolicloud is basically a Chromium-based machine engineered specifically to run HTML applications.
But what's in it for developers? Having Chromium at or near the top of its stack doesn't make Jolicloud unique. Even worse, HTML5 is a standard. During the first morning's keynotes at the Google I/O conference, Google product management VP Sundar Pichai showed how a new tab in Google's Chrome browser "boots" straight to a collection of icons that represent HTML5 applications (almost exactly what Krim showed his Jolicloud-based netbook booting to). Even worse for Jolicloud, those icons will show up there by way of Google's "Chrome Web Store" also announced by Pichai during his keynote. To win developers, Jolicloud will have to offer something to them above and beyond what's already available through Chromium, the HTML5 standard, and other technologies like Google's Chrome browser that runs on almost any stack. This is where Krim hopes his Netvibes heritage will come into play.
Krim's previous startup Netvibes specializes in tucking Web complexity into widgets that are easily dragged and dropped into personalized Web dashboards. While HTML5 is just now emerging as a Web application platform, HTML5 developers are still on their own when it comes to bridging the gap between HTML5 and the application programming interfaces offered by some of the Web's most popular services such as Facebook and Skype. This is where Krim hopes to add value for developers. Instead of HTML5 developers having to roll their own tools for plugging into popular Web service APIs and/or accessing the local hardware, Jolicloud will provide those tools in the way of something that Krims calls "Web Sockets" instead through a collection of simple developer-accessible facilities.
Personally speaking, the idea of a netbook that just boots to the Web (a Webbook?) is very appealing. But it remains to be seen whether Jolicloud can sufficiently differentiate itself in the eyes of developers. There may of course be a window of opportunity for a company like Jolicloud to come in and give HTM5 app developers and easier way of plugging into certain APIs that are out there on the Web (according to Jolicloud director of partnerships and development Brenda O'Connell, this layer of middleware isn't actually ready yet). But it's not like HTML5 is some unimportant sleeper technology that the providers of those APIs haven't heard of. If HTML5 developers don't have an easy way of accessing those APIs, rest assured, they will. It's in the best interests of the Googles, Facebooks, and Skypes of the world to make sure that developers on any platform with traction have easy access to their facilities. It would be suicide for HTML5 not to.
Also, Jolicloud isn't the first to think "Web operating system." Palm's WebOS comes to mind as a technology that espouses the same exact idea (only for smartphones and not netbooks). Now a part of HP's portfolio, WebOS could pretty much head in any direction (including netbook OS). Or, you could look at it the other way. If it needed a Web OS, HP could have picked up Jolicloud for a fraction of what it spent on Palm, which in my opinion will turn out to be one of the biggest blunders in tech M&A history. Also, Apple is behind HTML5 as an application platform. In favor of Jolicloud (which will work with any Intel-based netbook), the Apple and Palm OSes are device specific.
Yes, Jolicloud has its work cut out for it. But I like Krim's vision for netbooks. And I liked the demo too (although Google showed practically the exact same thing in Chrome). Seeing a PC boot to a bunch of HTML-based cloud apps like Skype and Gmail the way the iPhone boots to its application "menu" was a real glimpse of the future. A future that's probably a lot closer than most realize. The question is who will be the first to deliver it en masse? Jolicloud? Or, speaking of Google I/O, Android?
David Berlind is the chief content officer of TechWeb and editor-in-chief of TechWeb.com. He can be reached at [email protected] and you also can find him on Twitter and other social networks (see the list below).