You've heard of - and probably played with - on-line word processors and spreadsheets, a la Google Documents (http://docs.google.com) - but are you ready for the "on-line computer?" Huh? What's that again? A computer that exists in cyberspace? Sounds very George Jetson-ish. Unfortunately, our society is nowhere as advanced as the cartoon world, so out virtual computer is certainly much more primitive than old George's - since all he would have to do to connect is flip open a virtual screen and give his name and password.
We, on the other hand, would need a computer to connect to our virtual computer, which sort of defeats the purpose of having one.
Or maybe not, if the idea is to have the same interface and access to the same documents, storage and applications no matter where you are connecting from.
Imagine a scenario like this: You connect to the Internet via a low maintenance Linux desktop OS or thin-client, which is stripped down to the bare minimum, with few, if any, applications and services installed - except those needed to get on line. Once you connect, though, you log into an on-line operating system, chock-full of your favorite programs, games and entertainment items (games, YouTube videos, etc.). You could use this OS at home and there would be a chain of kiosks at airports around the world where you could use the same system to connect to your "virtual computer." Of course, you would have to have a great deal of faith in human nature to work like this.
If the people running g.ho.st. and similar services are serious about turning their virtual OS into a true alternative to desktop operating systems and encourage users to store their work on their servers, they're going to have to come up with some way to reassure clients that nobody is going to be peering into their documents and files. After all, this is their computer we're talking about! But I'm getting ahead of myself.
G.ho.st (http://g.ho.st/) the Global Hosted Operating System, is one of several on-line operating systems/computers that promise to free users from the shackles of the desktop. G.ho.st. works on any platform, and operates independently of your computer's OS. It includes a number of games, Google-style widgets for games, weather, news etc., and other accessories and utilities.
Being that it's still in Alpha, (Beta is expected sometime this summer), g.ho.st doesn't have any real applications in the desktop sense of the word - although it does have a basic word processor, a basic Outlook-style calendar and, very cool, a program to send free faxes from stored documents to many countries in the world. Word processors and such are expected soon, and in the meantime you can use the g.ho.st. browser to connect to Google Docs or some other on-line service.
Although on-line Google Docs would work from any computer, platform or OS, too, obviating the need for something like g.ho.st., the point of the system is to present a complete environment which can be built upon for the future.
G.ho.st. isn't alone in this latest iteration of on-line software - or, rather, operating systems - as a service. Others include the YouOS (http://www.youos.com), which has hundreds of user-developed applications, and the very Windows like Icube (http://www.oos.cc/), although it basically has just a word processor at this point. And, not quite ready for prime time yet is Xin (http://www.xindesk.com/), which will be glad to have you as a user when its alpha OS is launched. Looks like it'll be nice when it does take off, though, if the Web site is to be believed.
G.ho.st., however, is much more interesting - because it's developed and managed right here at home (more or less). The CEO of the company, Zvi Schreiber, lives in Jerusalem, while the servers are in, of all places, Ramallah. In various interviews, Schreiber has described a vision of using computers to bridge the gaps between cultures, and says he has pledged 10% of what he makes from g.ho.st to "promoting peace in the Middle East" (http://tinyurl.com/2kj2no). Of course, he admits, it may be awhile before he can follow through on that promise.
Using gh.os.t. in recent weeks, I was enamored of the potential - but I have a philosophical concern. Will g.ho.st. be able to work as advertised, as a true substitute for a desktop OS? While the g.ho.st. site (as do the other services mentioned here) makes much of future plans for growth in its FAQ (http://tinyurl.com/2nvany), one detail that was noticeably lacking was a discussion of security issues. Of course, security concerns hasn't prevented Google Docs from taking off, but Google knows everything there is to know about everybody already anyway, thanks to its incessant data gathering. And I would imagine few people would put sensitive security (or personal) documents on-line anyway, just because its on-line. We're not concerned about Google Docs because it's a service that has its place.
But g.ho.st. and its comrades are aiming for the whole package, at least for some users, such as students, travelers, and those who can't afford a laptop but want access to a desktop and document storage.
Theoretically, one could (or will be able) to do all of his or her computing on g.ho.st., which means that security now becomes a major issue.
By security, I don't necessarily mean some employee taking a peek at my documents. Rather, I mean potentially corrupted files, a dead server or any of the other plagues that could be visited upon me - with little ability on my part to control the environment. The same thing holds true for a traditional desktop OS, too - a hard drive can die, the kids can accidentally delete a file while playing a game, etc. To avoid that kind of problem, you make a backup. Which you could do with g.ho.st. - but that would mean you couldn't strictly rely on your on-line OS.
Philosophically, something is askew and unless you were to sign up for numerous accounts with on-line operating systems, I don't see how you can use this system to back up your documents. If on-line OS are supposed to help travelers or students away at university who aren't even working at their own computers, how are they supposed to back up their data?
Two words: Flash drive. You plug your drive into the USB port, download the document to it and you're set.
But that brings up yet another philosophical problem: If you wanted a portable, go anywhere you go operating system, why not just get a U3 USB flash drive with its own OS that piggybacks onto Windows? Isn't that what on-line OS like g.ho.st. are doing anyway? After all, you do need a working OS to get on line, at least currently. And with your own U3 drive, you're in charge.
Personally, I think g.ho.st. and the others in this crowd are a great idea - I just haven't yet figured out where they fit in with the great scheme of things.