In the third quarter, a little-known Swedish software company plans to release a free operating system with the potential to radically alter the economics of software development. If successful, Xcerion could erode the power Microsoft derives from controlling the desktop, beat Google at its software-as-a-service play, and make commodity Linux boxes more viable as a platform for the masses.
"What Skype did for telephony, we want to do for software development," says CEO Daniel Arthursson. "We're enabling the 'long tail' for business software."
Arthursson's luring developers with financial incentives
But XIOS isn't simply an interface for media sharing. Rather, it's a complete XML-based operating system and development platform that replicates the desktop computing experience from inside the browser and adds the benefits of cloud-based computing, making applications and data available over the network.
Watch it in action and you'll see the threat it poses to Windows: Double-click on XIOS and the familiar desktop interface appears inside the browser window. Expand the browser window in full-screen mode and the Windows desktop vanishes beneath it. Of course, the XIOS environment could just as easily look like the Mac OS desktop or something else entirely. This is what Microsoft feared Netscape would do--turn its main asset, the operating system, into middleware.
WHY DO IT?
There are several reasons to run an XML-based operating system in a Web browser: security, data portability, freedom from hardware and platform lock-in, cost, built-in collaboration, and development productivity.
XIOS should be immune to most malware because it runs in a sandbox, a virtual environment where code can be executed without risk to computing resources on the outside. Because XIOS is based on XML, it's extremely portable and compatible. Applications can be easily tied to back-end XML Web services created with .Net, Java, or other Web technology. With XIOS running in a Web browser, users can access their files from any computer with an Internet connection and compatible browser, regardless of platform. The operating system has to be downloaded, but it's a small file--only 2 Mbytes.
As an operating system, XIOS can operate offline, storing files and running applications locally on a virtual hard disk. XIOS can be toted around on a USB flash drive with, say, Firefox, and every computer you plug it into becomes your computer, with your files.
The flexibility to store files locally or in the Xcerion cloud should enhance XIOS's appeal to businesses unwilling to trust application service providers with their data.
When Xcerion launches XIOS, it expects to have a free productivity suite that initially will run only inside Internet Explorer and Firefox. Support for Apple's Safari and Opera is planned.
To provide incentives for third-party developers to write applications for its system, the back-end system is designed to route revenue either from subscription fees or ads served to users of free programs to application authors. Xcerion will take 10% to 20% of the proceeds, Arthursson says. The exact portion has yet to be decided.
If XIOS proves appealing to developers, Xcerion's open software-as-a-service platform could offer a far more diverse set of applications than controlled SaaS platforms like Google. "You can add more functionality yourself with our system," says Arthursson. "Google only provides the applications they develop."
Because XIOS was built from the ground up, it includes an answer to two of the most vexing computing issues today: collaboration and keeping files backed up and synchronized across multiple machines and operating systems. Its transaction engine can mirror local files in the cloud and distribute them to others, letting users collaborate on the same XML document.
XIOS has limitations. It can't handle advanced motion graphics for gaming, though it works with other browser-based software like Adobe's Flash; it isn't well suited for mobile phones; and it needs to prove itself in terms of speed. What's also missing is a sense that the tech industry believes in the approach. People testing XIOS aren't ready to speak publicly, Arthursson says.
Xcerion's initial impact is more likely to be felt by Salesforce.com's AppExchange, a similar though more limited approach to customized app development, than by Google or Microsoft. Three to five years out, Xcerion may offer far more applications than Google's and Microsoft's controlled, select sets of online apps. It remains to be seen which is more appealing to developers and the public, but the openness of the operating system and a platform that pays sound promising.