For centuries philosophers, gurus, and mystics have speculated on the possibility of the transmigration of souls, or separating the spiritual from the corporeal. Now the technology industry is on the verge of achieving the equivalent in computing terms: separating the software platform, or operating system, from the hardware, i.e. the PC. While the concept of cloud-based operating systems has been around for a few years, a series of developments in the last few weeks indicates that such platforms are actually taking shape.
This week news leaked out of Microsoft about the software giant's Midori research project, which aims to transfer most of the functionality and capability of the Windows OS to the Internet. Designed to support Internet-based computing and multicore architectures, the Midori system is being called Microsoft's first cloud-based OS, and it could one day replace the company's keystone Windows franchise.
Meanwhile a Mountain View, Calif.-based startup called CherryPal just released a new mini-PC, known as the CherryPal, that is designed to operate solely via a Firefox browser. While the new machine, which will run on just 2 watts of power, has an embedded Linux-based OS, it's hidden from the user and is used mainly to boot up the browser to access common applications.
CherryPal aims to "decrease the footprint of the OS even further," says CEO Max Seybold. "The trend is to access more and more applications in the cloud, not call them locally."
Several startups and open-source projects have built cloud-based operating systems, also known as WebTops, such as DesktopTwo, EyeOS, G.ho.st, and YouOS. To date these have mostly been of interest to the open-source development community, but the advent of browser-based "thin clients" like CherryPal and of projects like Midori indicates that fully cloud-based computing could make its way to the masses. Google is also said to be at work on a cloud OS, while a Swedish startup called Xcerion has gained attention for its hybrid, an XML-based system called iCloud.
Launched as a beta test open to a limited number of programmers in the third quarter of 2007, iCloud is a "cloud OS" built around Xcerion's XML Internet Operating System/3 (XIOS/3). While it is accessed via the Internet, iCloud uses an XML virtual machine for local (and offline) operation. Thus, according to Xcerion CEO Daniel Arthursson, it will combine the benefits of cloud computing with the advantages of local PC-based applications, such as rapid execution and a high degree of user control.
Xcerion uses what might be called a "modified cloud" approach: the company has established a fleet of data center servers to host the data, but those machines will host only the compressed XML files containing customers' information, rather than entire hosted versions of Word, Excel, and other popular programs.
The shift of the entire computing platform to the Web is not going to happen soon, but many observers consider it inevitable as cloud-based software and services become more powerful and as broadband connections proliferate.
Also driving the spread of the cloud OS model, says CherryPal's Seybold, was Microsoft's June 30 discontinuation of Windows XP.
"That's forcing a lot of consumers who don’t necessarily want to go with Vista to reconsider their overall computing strategy," Seybold remarks. "They can switch to Vista, buy an Apple [machine], or do something completely different."
Running Web-based applications on a platform in the cloud would fall into the "something completely different" category.
Today, businesses can make use of cloud services such as Amazon Web Services, Google Apps, and Salesforce.com CRM, although there are questions about privacy, data security, industry standards, vendor lock-in, and high-performing apps. For more information on cloud computing, you can download a free in-depth report here.