Both Google and Microsoft are making big promises about browser-based environments that allow you to access documents, spreadsheets, calendars, contacts, and more, all in one place online. But so far, it's not entirely clear how these systems will work or what they will be able to do. Google's Chrome OS, for example, will be designed primarily to get you online faster.
But why do you need a Google OS when you already have access to so many of Google's online tools--such as Google Docs, Gmail, and Google Reader--all of which are available from any browser on any operating system? Microsoft Office 2010, meanwhile, will let you access Web versions of Microsoft's famous suite of productivity applications--that is, it will be a Web-based suite that will compete directly with Google Docs.
While we wait for the big guns to launch those products, a good number of services already allow you to put your own computer in the cloud for free. Most of the products I looked at are called Webtops, application suites that try to give you the look and feel of a regular computer desktop within a Web browser.
Many Webtops let you store files and media online, save browser bookmarks, and access a variety of Web apps such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation software from almost any browser. Some of these Webtops have been around for several years, while others are younger upstarts still trying to work the bugs out. But all of them take different approaches toward the mobile and virtual tricks that will almost certainly characterize productivity-app platforms of the future.
I took several of these cloud-based systems for a quick spin to see how the future is shaping up. Let's start with the two that impressed me most.
Transmedia's Glide OS makes a strong showing compared with other Webtops. Glide has a variety of functional tools that can help you get things done, whether you're working alone or with an online group. A basic Glide OS account is free, and includes 10GB of free online storage and the ability to add up to six users under one account. A paid option costs US$4.95/month or $49.95/year for up to 25 users sharing 25GB of storage. You can't add more users, but you can add more storage in 25GB increments for $4.95 each.
Glide had by far the fastest startup and response time out of all the online systems I tried. The Webtop has applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, calendar, and address book, plus a Web-site builder. The company says its applications support compatibility with over 250 file formats, and you can create online meetings among Glide OS users you're connected to. The Webtop also provides granular controls that let you decide who you want to share your documents with and how often. Glide also offers an e-mail application that uses both the POP and IMAP standard, and has an integrated search tool featuring Web results from Ask.com. Other applications include a basic photo editor and a music player. The productivity suite, including e-mail, word processing, and other apps, can also be connected within Glide's new rights-based social networking service, Glide Engage.