When you’re at a computer that’s missing a vital file or application, like an office workstation that’s locked down, a friend’s system or coffee shop computer, you can still get to a desktop that contains your essentials—on the web. A “webtop” is a virtual desktop that you access using only a browser, and it can include much of the stuff you’d expect on a local computer desktop: like file storage and management, a calendar, RSS reader, email client, and photo viewer. While there are several web desktops available these days, the free and open source EyeOS application is the most accessible, useful, and promising one out there. Follow along to see what a web-based desktop looks like, and how it can help you get things done when you’re locked down or out of pocket.
Why a web-based desktop?
To say the least, not everybody is on-board with the idea of a web-based working environment. It’s always going to be a little slower than the system you’ve got at your fingers, and those with enough DIY initiative can hack together a fully-loaded thumb drive or remote-controlled computer that can do the same things, and probably better, than a “webtop.” But while an app like eyeOS isn’t full-featured or perfectly smooth at this point, it offers a lot of functions in one screen that would require opening tab after tab in your browser, and anyone can set it up and test-drive a free hosted account in less than a minute. And eyeOS, in particular, isn’t too harsh on the eyes, either (click for a larger image): For those inclined to try something new, here are a few features and uses you might find pretty handy.
Create a separate workspace for projects
As the proliferation of one-thing-only apps and no-distraction desktops has shown, some people want to see only their task in front of them. With eyeOS, it's easy to create an environment devoted to one project, or one type of work, that's more focused than your do-everything standard desktop full of little attention-grabbers. Switch your browser to full screen, set up only the bookmarks, feeds, email, and other tools you need to get your work done. Since you don't know half as much about how to distract yourself in this place, you might just get to cranking those widgets. Need to grab a file from another web app or service? Head there in eyeOS' built-in browser and download it directly to your virtual space, rather than heading back to your actual desktop.
Add it to your home server or web space
Browse and work in privacy
POP email and FTP app
Two of the eyeOS' best features are the two that would come in most handy at a workstation or on another restricted system. Need to grab a file from a remote site or your own home FTP server? eyeOS has you covered. Bosses clamp down on your Gmail or Yahoo access? You can load them through the POP interface in eyeMail as a work-around. Given eyeOS' open source nature, IMAP support is a likely addition in the near future.
Stream music and video privately
YouTube and other music-sharing sites are great for distributing your videos and music across the Internet, but sometimes you only want to reach a small, select audience—which might just be only yourself, at a later time. Web-based desktops like eyeOS are chock-full of multimedia features, and eyeOS in particular lets you upload and stream videos and music in a wide variety of formats, and place those files in a Windows-like "public folder" for mass or select sharing with other eyeOS users.
Do some actual work
eyeOS' actual work tools—including a word processor, slim-featured spreadsheet editor, slideshow viewer, and basic calendar and contact managers—aren't best in class in any of their categories, as Google, Zoho, and other apps each offer richer interfaces and more features. But the benefit of eyeOS is that they're all in one browser window/tab, with files placed in organised folders or spread out on a desktop. For those not particularly tied to a particular online office suite and needing just the basic text-changing capabilities, the web desktop's suite of tools might just be the next best thing to having your own desktop available.
... or take a break
I'd love to say that eyeOS is designed to eliminate time-eating distractions entirely, but it's an unwritten rule that any operating system must have some kind of addictive game pre-installed—eyeOS in its hosted form has four of them. There's the old standbys chess and solitaire, but also modified versions of Sonic the Hedgehog and Prince of Persia. There are plenty more for those who take the installation plunge, but that's a healthy dose of browser-based fun already.
Got any useful ideas of your own for using an OS-inside-an-OS? Found another Webtop you want to vouch for? Let's hear it all in the comments.
Kevin Purdy, associate editor at Lifehacker, wrote most of this feature from inside his own eyeOS. His weekly feature, Open Sourcery, appears every Saturday on Lifehacker AU.