Future Watch: Webtops key to keeping users connected

Future watch: Webtops

Organisations can free themselves from mundane software installations and upgrades by providing a Webtop, a virtual desktop for mobile users to access office applications and files via a Web browser. Whether an ASP model or internally maintained, Webtops are changing corporate computing, freeing users of the burden of lugging a laptopWith today's dispersed workforce and the ever-changing computer industry, organisations are consistently in a state of flux trying to keep end users up-to-date with the latest upgrades and rollouts of company-wide applications. The cost associated with investing in and maintaining office applications is high.

To ease this burden there is a new model of computing available today in its infancy, referred to as Webtops. These virtual desktops provide access to application suites via a Web browser. In the not-too-distant future, users won't be required to carry laptop computers to access, share, and manipulate information: they'll simply need Web appliances.

The most widely known Webtops today are those available from ASPs (application service providers), such as Visto Corp and Magically, that provide free access to productivity tools, like e-mail and address books, and to information via any Web browser, be it on a laptop or a handheld device. These models are good for individuals who need access to a stored document or organisational tools; however, they lack critical office tools such as word processing.

Vendors such as The Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) are expanding the reach of what is accessible via a Web browser, offering tools to Web-enable applications running on Windows, Unix, or mainframe systems. SCO's UnixWare 7.1, for example, comes with a Webtop feature for Web-enabling applications residing on a UnixWare server. Administrators control what applications users can access. Additionally, Tarantella, a spin-off of SCO, offers Web-enabling technology tools for large enterprises and ASPs to bring applications to their users via the Web.

On the rise are Webtop models competing with Microsoft Office applications that free organisations and users from being tied to a Windows platform. Among them are FreeDesk.com and NuoMedia.com, both currently available, and Sun Microsystems' StarPortal, which is in beta and due at the end of 2000. All three offer a complete Web-based office suite. These Webtop solutions eliminate the need to install office productivity tools on individual workstations and free users from being bound to their desks.

Sun's initiative can be installed or hosted, giving organisations more flexibility. Sun also offers a development kit for customisation. New organisations can set up their office easily with these virtual desktops without having to spend or invest in desktop applications. Companies can access these applications at no cost; the charges come into play when companies require more storage space and support.

Research company Gartner Group predicts Webtops will become mainstream by 2002, and users will be free from relying on laptops to access the applications and information they need.

The success of this type of computing also depends on the success of useful and critical applications available from ASPs. Therefore, ASPs will need to adopt Web-enabling technologies, such as those offered by Tarantella. Finally, as the growth in broadband connections improve, these applications will become more practical.

In the future, users won't need to carry around laptops. Their applications and files will be available via multiple Internet devices. But they shouldn't toss out those laptops yet: they'll still need applications access when they're not connected to the Internet.

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