Xcerion is a Swedish Internet startup whose founders include ex-Microsoft employees Lou Perazzoli and John Connors. The company will make headlines later this year when they officially unveil what they call an "Internet OS" dubbed XIOS that runs in a web browser. We took an early look at the XIOS concept and had the chance to talk about the project with the company's CEO, Daniel Arthursson.
The "operating system" (more on the scare quotes later) is based on XML, and using AJAX it connects to multiple back-end servers running Ubuntu Linux. XIOS is not an applet or a plug-in. Instead, the "OS" is really a complex AJAX-based system, and Arthursson says that it can be viewed as a virtual machine for XML applications.
How does it work? After downloading a couple of megabytes of code, a user can "boot up" XIOS in a web browser and start running the OS and applications Xcerion is developing. Xcerion says that XIOS and its default applications will be free, and the applications themselves will be open-sourced so that users can modify them to suit their own needs. Furthermore, XIOS is a development platform that will allow coders to create their own applications, so it's not just limited to productivity applications.
Is this the start of a true "Internet OS"? It all depends on what you mean by "operating system," really.
The one big difference between Xcerion's solution and existing "OS-in-a-browser" projects like YouOS and EyeOS is that it can also run in offline mode. XIOS will keep a user's data intact and then sync all changes with the virtual hard drive residing on a back-end server the next time a connection is regained. "It is important here to note that since XIOS supports multiple virtual hard drives, including third party hard drives, enterprise and personal ones, the data may not only be stored in Xcerion's data centers, but also on your own home server or corporate network," said Arthursson. "This is something that many services on the Internet cannot provide today. This also extends the reliability of XIOS."
Of course, XIOS is not a full operating system, as the term is traditionally defined. It requires a host OS to boot up and launch a web browser before it can start operating. A more accurate phrase is perhaps "Cloud OS" because running it requires access to the "cloud," that is, a network of services and connections that exist on the Internet. However, according to Arthursson, "XIOS is an operating system running within the browser, which executes the application logic locally (not on the servers)." Clearly for Arthursson the major point here is that all necessary code is executed locally, and this approach should help offset one of the biggest problems of web-based "OSes," that of performance. It's what makes XIOS stand apart. The question is, can XIOS succeed where so many others have failed?
There's a reason why new OSes aren't launched every day
Making a new operating system is always an exciting prospect, for everyone from university computer science students to large companies like Microsoft—the latter's Singularity research OS contains many interesting ideas. However, every truly new consumer operating system suffers from a serious and inevitably fatal problem: a lack of applications. And when applications finally come to the new OS, they do not compare favorably to mature apps from the more established platforms.
It has been argued that this latter failing is greatly overstated, and that new applications can easily be written that can accommodate the majority of people's computing needs. The standard line trotted out on these occasions is that 80 percent of users only use 20 percent of an application's features, so all a new app has to do is implement that 20 percent and they can easily grab 80 percent market share. The problem with this argument, as explained masterfully by technology blogger Joel Spolsky, is that everyone uses a different 20 percent. Writers, for example, always need a word count, and that's one of the things that is left out of every new "lite" word processing application because it doesn't fall into the standard 20 percent. Other users have different needs.
Xcerion claims that their small stable of applications can provide "40 to 50 percent functionality" of users' needs, but even this optimistic estimate would suffer from the problem outlined above. The company also states that any other software needs can easily be filled in by open-source development. The problem with relying on open source to fill in the gaps for a new OS is that OSS development is not spread out evenly amongst all projects. A considerable amount of work goes into improving Open Office, for example, but much less effort is put into Abiword, still less on KOffice'sKWord, and a tiny fraction of the development resources find their way to word processing applications on new operating systems such as SkyOS or EyeOS. Can Xcerion expect a different outcome? They'll need a lot of buzz, early and often. Growth in the online "office apps" arena hasn't been explosive, and Xcerion will have to contend not only with Microsoft, but the likes of Google as well.
A solution in search of a problem
Our primary objection to the idea of an "Internet OS" with productivity apps is that it isn't really solving any particular problem in a superior way. People who want to use a word processing program today have a plethora of options. They can purchase a copy of Word, or download a free copy of OpenOffice, or, in a pinch, even use a web-based document tool such as Google's Writely. Having a new OS and a new word processor running in a web browser doesn't improve this situation, and could make it significantly worse because of potential speed and latency issues. Competition is a good thing, but it is still unclear what need this truly meets, aside from answering the most common objection to online apps: what happens if you're offline?
If XIOS is embraced by the developer community, there's no end to what could be written for it. While XIOS will debut with a productivity suite and perhaps another application or two, XIOS "the OS" should not be confused with the applications themselves, which in the early days may amount to little more than proofs-of-concept. XIOS is an "operating system" in search of a killer app. Arthursson suggests that the portability of a user's workplace–accessible from any browser, anywhere–will be that killer app.
What will bring the developers to the table? This is perhaps Xcerion's most genuis move: XIOS was designed with monetization in mind, and developers will be able make money off their applications through user fees or advertising. It's "Software-as-a-Service" meets the proverbial lemonade stand, and Xcerion hopes that developers will come for the lemonade and stay for the money.