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Your Desktop Anywhere? 21 Web-Based Desktops

Your Desktop Anywhere? 21 Web-Based Desktops
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The last couple of years have seen the release of a slew of new online desktop applications. Commonly called “WebOS”, “webtops”, or “web desktops”, these applications use Flash, Ajax, or other web technologies to mimic a regular, PC-based desktop. In theory, this means that wherever you went, you’d be able to access your work through a common interface and set of tools. All with a single login, too.

In practice, it’s not quite so simple. Even making allowances for the varying states of development web desktops are in at the moment, none of them offer a compelling experience for web-based workers. I have looked at and played with almost two dozen of these applications, and so far haven’t found any that I could integrate very well into my daily routine.

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But there’s promise. Some of these apps are well worth watching, especially as they begin to interconnect with other services like Zoho Writer and Google Docs for document editing, Box.net’s OpenBox service for file storage, and other third-party services and plugins. I’ve highlighted three of the most promising webtop services below, followed by all the rest.

The three most developed and usable web-based desktops are, in my humble estimation (and in alphabetical order):

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  • ajaxwindows
       
      ajaxWindows: By far the most developed and useful of the online desktops I tried, AjaxWindows offers a variety of productivity apps, integrating ajax13’s own apps (ajaxWrite, ajaxSketch, and ajaxPresent) as well as Google Docs and Zoho for creating and editing documents, PikNik for editing images, Google Calendar, and several other services. You can even use a Gmail account for file storage (although this service is not functioning at the moment — they say it will be back soon). The interface is super-slick and very Windows-like, meaning it’s easy to figure out how to do things. 

      Unfortunately, ajaxWindows doesn’t work well with Internet Explorer — you need to install some plugins and even then performance is not great.  Which wouldn’t be a problem (I almost never use IE) except it has crashed FireFox every single time I’ve logged in. When they get that problem worked out, I’ll definitely be back — ajaxWindows comes the closest to being a usable web-based desktop at the moment.

    • ghost

        g.ho.st:
        The “Globally Hosted Operating SysTem” offers a fairly usable desktop, using Amazon’s W3 service for file storage (a generous 3 GB for files and an additional 3 GB for email).  Your account comes with a username@g.ho.st email address and — this is the kicker! — FTP access so you can bulk upload files straight from your desktop. G.ho.st is the most stable of the web desktops I’ve used, running quickly in Flash. However, while g.ho.st offers email, IM, and applets for last.fm and YouTube, there are as of now no productivity apps.  They say more apps are in the works, and have an open API for third-party developers to create apps and services with, so I expect more useful features in the near future.
         
      • startforce

          StartForce:
          Like ajaxDesktop and g.ho.st, StartForce has a familiar, Windows-like interface (opting for the XP look rather than Vista, though) so it’s easy to get started. It comes with a full host of productivity applications from Zoho, each of which launches from the Start menu in it’s own window. It also includes a file uploader for bulk uploading, which is handy. You can install a range of other apps, like Microsoft Earth Viewer and Google Mars, and hopefully more are coming.

          StartForce is definitely the most usable out-of-the-box web desktop; ajaxDesktop has more applications but is buggy, g.ho.st is slightly slicker and better put-together, but has no useful applications. My only real quibble with StartForce is that double-clicking files in the file browser starts the process to download the file to your desktop, instead of opening the file in the program that created it. I could almost use StartForce regularly, and I’ll be giving it a more thorough workout to see if a little more familiarity improves its usability.

        The rest of the list (also in alphabetical order) are services that, for one reason or another, don’t stand up to regular use. Some of them are incredibly slick, while others are absolutely bare-bones. Some are brand new projects, still in experimental, pre-Alpha state, others have been around for a while and are in full working order. Any one of them could suddenly take off with a sudden effort, so I’m not quite ready to count them out entirely; at the moment, though, none of them is in any state to do any serious work, no matter how “lickable”.

        • DesktopTwo: DesktopTwo is a Flash-based desktop with several productivity apps and a gorgeous, slick user interface. At least, that’s what I get from the screenshots — I was never able to log in.
        • DesktopOnDemand: This might well be the service to beat, with 1GB storage in the free plan (with more costing 2p — about 4 cents — per GB per week), document and graphic editing (using GIMP, apparently), WebDAV support (meaning you can drag files on your desktop into your DOD folder and they are uploaded automatically), and more. Alas, they are not accepting new accounts at the moment, so I couldn’t log in and test it out.
        • eyeOS: Slick and well-established, eyeOS has a very Mac-like feel. There is a word processor (and no other productivity apps) but it saves in .eyedoc format, which as far as I know only works in eyeOS.
        • GCOE X: GCOE X focuses on cross-browser compatibility — it runs on Opera, Safari, even iPhones. At the moment, there is only a demonstration, with no applications or services. There’s very little information about what’s coming, but it’s one to keep an eye on.
        • Glide: Another one focusing on cross-browser compatibility, especially smartphone browsers, Glide breaks the traditional desktop mold with its almost iPhone-esque interface — large glossy buttons fill its desktop offering access to apps, including a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation app. Their GlideSync application can be downloaded to your desktop to synchronize files between Glide and your base PC, a nice touch. Glide also offers collaboration features — the free account allows up to 4 users and 2 GB of storage; paid accounts allow more users and more storage. Work in Glide can also be shared publicly with their “Publish” application. My big beef with Glide is that applications open in new tabs, which seems unnecessary.
        • Goowy: Technically Goowy is not a web desktop but a web-based widget platform. It is quite stable and absolutely beautiful, the epitome of “lickable” interfaces. While none of the widgets do anything all that productive, it is easily imaginable that some savvy developer will put together a Google Docs or Zoho Widget, which would make it quite a compelling tool. Since Goowy widgets can run on your desktop, too, this could be an easy way to tie your local PC with your web-based experience.
        • Jooce: Jooce is still in private beta, so I haven’t been able to play with it at all, but their screenshots look pretty cool. No indication of whether any serious productivity apps will be available or not.
        • iCube Online Operating System: iCube mimics Windows almost exactly, down to the icons and menus. It offers a pretty full complement of applications (though no spreadsheet or presentation app), but I could only figure out how to save documents in the native “OOS Documents” format.
        • MyGoya: MyGoya is based in Germany, which becomes apparent when you come across apps, menus, or help documents that haven’t been translated into English yet. It’s Flash-based interface is slick, though, whatever language it’s in. Their “ShareBase” allows you to set up sharing policies for collaboration, and they offer several ways to publish material — photos, blogs, documents — to the Web. Document creation and editing is handled by Zoho. though I couldn’t get it to create a new document to test. This is obviously a pretty big problem, but one I assume they’ll fix. The other issue I have is the stingy 512 MB storage — I know, it’s free, why should I complain, but free storage is becoming common — at least let us interface with other storage services if you don’t want, or can’t afford, the expense of supporting adequate storage locally.
        • Mylgd: Perhaps the strangest of the online desktops, mylgd is an actual Gnome desktop, online. It’s in very early development — v0.1, they say — and there’s not much you can do with it, but imagine it down the road with OpenOffice and TuxRacer!
        • Nivio: Nivio is another one that’s in private beta right now, so I haven’t played with it. This is a paid service, or at least it will be. But listen: it’s Windows XP, on the web.  With MS Office, Adobe Reader, RealPlayer, and other familiar applications! Definitely one to watch.
        • oDesktop: Yet another that’s “coming soon”, oDesktop will be hosted by you, on your domain, meaning you can use whatever storage your host or server has available. Not a free application, and no productivity apps, at least not in their current plans.
        • Pytagor: I’m actually not sure what this does.  It appears to be an online file manager; as far as I can tell, there are no applications at all, but you can store and share photos, RSS feeds, contacts, and documents. Everything you upload is indexed and searchable. Maybe out of place in this list, but where else would I put it?
        • Schmedley: Schmedley does exactly the same thing as Goowy, and it’s every bit as much fun to say. Like Goowy, it’s not exactly a web desktop but rather is a platform for hosted widgets. But if I included Goowy, I had to include Schmedley, since they do exactly the same thing. Fair’s fair, after all.
        • SSOE: Don’t let the “1.0a” designation fool you — the Flash-based SSOE is in very early development and doesn’t do anything at the moment. At the moment, you can choose to launch the “unstable version” or the “semi-stable version”. But I assume it is meant to do something, someday, and I do so love a good mystery…
        • Xcerion: Hope you’re not getting tired of closed betas, because here’s another one. When it’s done, Xcerion promises a full-fledged web-based operating system, with access to hundreds of open source applications. We’ll have to wait and see on this one.
        • Xindesk: This one isn’t a private beta, at least — it’s a private alpha. Again, it will be a Vista-like environment with tons of apps.  When it gets here.
        • YouOS: Finally, one you can use.  YouOS got a lot of people really excited last year.  It offers a bare-bones word processor and a browser that’s called “WhereWolf”, which is pretty cool. It hasn’t changed much in a long time, though — there’s not a whole lot you can do with it. But it’s stable — if they added some applications, it might well be one of the top contenders.

        I’m sure I’ve missed a few, maybe even some really good ones, so let me (and our readers) know if there’s something that should be on this list.  What I really want to know, though, is if anyone is actually using any of these services on a day-to-day basis, to do real work.  What do you use, and for what? How is it working for you?

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        Last Updated on September 18, 2019

        How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

        How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

        Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

        I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

        One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

        Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

        The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

        And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

        What to Write Down

        Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

        Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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        Dates of Events

        Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

        For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

        Names of People

        Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

        Theories or Frameworks

        Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

        Definitions

        Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

        Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

        Arguments and Debates

        Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

        This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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        Images

        Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

        Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

        Other Stuff

        Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

        I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

        Your Own Questions

        Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

        3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

        You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

        1. Outlining

        Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

        Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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        For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

        2. Mind-Mapping

        For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

        Here’s the idea:

        In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

        The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

        If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

        You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

        3. The Cornell System

        The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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        About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

        You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

        In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

        You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

        The Bottom Line

        I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

        I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

        More About Note-Taking

        Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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