Jolicloud – A great Linux distro that blurs the line between desktop and web applications

Jolicloud Logo

As an OS with ‘cloud’ baked into the name, Jolicloud does quite well as an internet centric system. Unlike xPUD and Chrome OS, it does not enforce a browser choice on you (although xPUD will allow you to install Google Chrome in the future). You can use the already-installed Firefox, or install Google Chrome or even Opera.

Jolicloud is essentially an Ubuntu 9.04-based OS which is redesigned in looks and features to work better with netbook, net-tops and other internet-centric computers. It aims for a more even mixture of internet and native applications, and has one of the simplest application installation procedures amongst its peers.

The Jolicloud UI is netbook-oriented, and as such, takes up a minimal amount of hard disk space and memory, leaving most for your applications. A thin bar at the top displays your running applications, system tray icons, and the date and time. It focuses on one task at a time, and as such all applications running in the background are collapsed to icons. A major portion of the panel at the top is taken up showing the active application. Here again, space is saved by displaying the application title-bar in the panel at top. A home button at the leftmost area of the panel takes you back to the home interface where you can launch applications. This interface might save space for netbooks, but it also means that this operating system would perhaps not be quite so suitable for tablet computers.

A walkthrough of Jolicloud

To take benefit of Jolicloud, you need to create a free online account and register your computer. The Jolicloud service connects with Twitter and Facebook, and while this aspect hasn’t been utilized much, it is something to look out for in future versions. Right now, you can follow other Jolicloud users which will let you get notifications of the software they install.

Jolicloud might have a minimalistic UI, however it is by no means a minimalistic OS. The OS is around 600MB, the size you’d expect any other distro, and comes with enough juice to justify that size; the OS comes with Firefox for browsing, F-Spot for managing your photo albums, Pidgin for instant messaging, Transmission for downloading torrents, Facebook, a dictionary app, a media player, a text editor, and a lot more. It’s safe to say, you will find even the default install covers a lot.

While web apps are an important part of Jolicloud, it does not limit the use of native applications, and its repository is filled with such applications. The Firefox version bundled with Jolicloud comes with an extension which hides the menu-bar, making it available via an alternate interface, this is a boon for small-screen devices.

The inclusion of Adobe AIR in the Jolicloud repository means that you have access to a growing number of Adobe AIR based applications such as the popular social networks client TweetDeck. The Jolicloud application directory also includes Wine, a software which allows running of Windows applications on Linux. A large number of Windows applications will be able to run on Jolicloud if you install Wine.

In Jolicloud there is no distinction between a web and a native application, and both are installed in pretty much the same manner using the same procedure. Installed applications also face no discrimination and they appear in their relevant categories. Jolicloud transparently installs your web apps using Mozilla Prism, a Mozilla Labs project which is useful for creating single-site applications.

The advantage of this approach is that it makes your browsing experience more stable as each web application runs in a separate process, meaning that a crash in your GMail instance won’t effect the work you have going on in Google Docs, Zoho Writer, and your Last.Fm will keep playing songs.

What stands out in Jolicloud is its dashboard, which is a central place from which you can manage your Jolicloud account, browse the App directory, install / remove applications, and interact with other Jolicloud users.

The interface for discovering and installing application is quite simple, and web based. An App directory lists all installable applications, native or otherwise and a lets you install them with a single click. Since web application are installed using Prism, which is already present on the system, they install in just a few seconds. New applications are continually added to the App directory and you will be pleased to find that nearly all categories of applications are covered.

Installing applications in Jolicloud

From this very directory you can easily see what applications have updates available, and you can sort applications to see the latest additions. Unfortunately, this dashboard is missing a section where you can get a list of all the applications you have installed. This means that you need to browse through the increasingly long list of applications to get to that rare native or web app you installed to update or remove it. The dashboard also seems to be optimized for a netbook resolution, and doesn’t take up the screen space when used on a larger screen device. This is a little sad, since for some people it can work as a good desktop OS as well.

Installing Jolicloud itself is a breeze, and is one of the easiest Linux distros to install. The default Jolicloud installer is actually a Windows EXE file which will allow you to install Jolicloud straight from Windows! It will install Jolicloud on you hard disk without disturbing any of your Windows partitions, and will add an entry to your Windows boot manager. For those running Windows, this makes it incredibly safe and easy to try out this OS.

For those already running Linux or wanting to install this on a pen-drive, the Jolicloud website has an alternate installer in the form of an ISO which can written onto a disk or pen-drive and then used to install the OS anywhere. Jolicloud itself comes with a tool for copying it on a pen-drive, so you can share it with your friends if you have a copy installed.

Jolicloud is a strong contender as a cloud OS, and its native applications support might appease even those who don’t want a cloud OS, as it doesn’t abandon native applications. Jolicloud is in active development, and the version available right now is just a pre-beta version of the OS, and might be unruly at times. In its current state, it takes under 25 seconds to reach the login screen, which is quite fast for a complete Linux distro.

Another good thing is that unlike Chrome OS and xPUD, it does not significantly change the interaction patterns you are used to. So ALT+tabbing works as expected, and for Linux users it comes with two virtual desktops as well.

In the end Jolicloud manages to keep a good mixture of native and web applications, and abstracts the differences between them so you can just focus on doing your work. This is one OS to look for when it releases.

Via Digit online

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Chrome OS: The Cloud’s grand opening

Chrome OS

Right now, on the computer you are using, millions and millions of lines of code are being executed to facilitate your operating systems operation, interface, services and installed applications; only a fraction of which are being used by your browser.

Right now, on the millions of computers in the world there is a sizable fraction of people who are doing the same. Resulting in perhaps of trillions of wasted computer instructions that render icons no one is clicking, running services few care about.

There are many among us who have bought a computer solely for the purpose of surfing the internet. Google Chrome OS brings these many just that, a simple computer which switches on like a TV, and lets you browse a website as easily as you browse TV channels.

By running just the bare essentials of the OS with a browser on top, your computer is now perhaps the most efficient consumer of internet. Yes, Google Chrome OS is reducing pollution by making computers more efficient. Sounds ridiculous? It probably is!

In all probability Chrome OS is Google’s way ushering more people online — by making the hardware simple and fast to use and cheap — since those are the people they make most money off of. However, my point here is, Chrome OS is here, now what?

For an average computer user, it is almost protocol to mention creating documents, editing spreadsheets, viewing photos. That is a stereotypical template for an average computer user, someone who runs the billions of lines of code which make up Windows 7 in all its 3D glory, just to type a few words, punch in numbers and chat with his friends.

So what is Chrome OS?

Succinctly: Chrome OS is a bootable browser. It is the Chrome Browser running on a Linux distribution which is optimized to simply only run Chrome. To give it some semblance of an OS, it will view and open files stored on an external drive, and will be able to print.

So is Chrome OS right for you? What can you really do with it?

If you live in India, the answer is NO, and nothing much! Those vacation pictures will probably take you a couple of days to upload anyway, and the only way to watch a movie on YouTube is to probably keep the window open all night. The time will come, we’re sure, and by the the rest of the world would have moved on we’re sure.

To answer this question for anyone else, you need to think about what you really do with your computer, because there will be people who don’t quite fit the “average joe” template, yet might gel with Chrome OS instead. If you already do most of your work online, and if you believe that whatever few tasks you need your non-browser applications for can be done online as well, you will probably find that Chrome OS — or any browser infact — will be sufficient for your needs. This is just too obvious.

However going a bit further we realize that we use our computers more than we think. Let us take a the simplest of workflows on a computer. Opening a file:

You browse to the file in your file management application, double-click it, it opens in the associated application.

Now how would this work on the internet?
You browse to your storage service using your browser, click it, it starts downloading, you wait, you upload it to the service which can open it, you wait, it opens.

Complicated much?

To be fair, we are now seeing better flows across application, such as opening documents attached with an email in GMail using Google Docs, or opening files stored on Box.net with Zoho, and there are thousands of services available online. More choice right?

But really, how much choice do you have? If you want a working workflow, where you don’t need to download files from one service to upload them to another, you have few options, store documents in Box.net / Zoho and open in Zoho, or store them in Google Docs and open them in Google Docs (if you know other examples of such smooth workflow, do let us know in the comments below).

The cloud is open and Chrome OS is open, but what after that? You cannot install Google Docs on your own server, so you are essentially locked with whatever services are available online, however much you trust them.

Images on the other hand have a much better workflow, most online image editors will provide support for at least Picasa Web Albums, Facebook, and Flickr. Applications such as Photoshop.com, Avairy etc offer editing options online, so you can go from Picasa / Flickr to Photoshop.com back to Picasa / Flickr then on to your blog.

However looking back just a year, we can see how the interoperability of services is constantly improving and thinking of how far they can go in another year — before Chrome OS comes out — we can be sure that the cloud will become more lucrative over time. It is almost certain that Google’s plan for Chrome OS will not end here, they will not just dump a browser installed on your computer and expect you to deal with it.

What the web will need then is storage services which can cater to any service, and the ability to set associations with such services. The web has quite some way to go before it comes to parity; hopefully Google is up to the task.

In the following article series we will take a look at the kind of workflows available online, and how far they can take you.