With the launch of the Chromebook, a new breed of cut-price laptop running Google’s Chrome OS software, the interest in so-called ‘cloud computing’ has never been higher. It’s easy to forget, however, that before Google came along, there were other companies offering remarkably similar software packages that can be installed – for free, even – on existing hardware.
Cloud before Chromebook
Jolicloud, founded back in 2008 by Tariq Krim and now the parent company of the Joli OS distribution, is one of the most well-known desktop ‘cloud’ companies around. Designed as a spin-off of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution, Joli OS has grown into a popular alternative to Google’s Chrome OS, and recently hit a major milestone in its history with the launch of Jolibook netbooks featuring the software pre-installed.
It’s a powerful package, but it’s not for everyone. We take a look at the pros and cons of making the leap to a cloud-based desktop operating system.
Like Chrome OS, Joli OS is based on the open-source GNU/Linux project – more specifically, the Ubuntu distribution. It’s a 32-bit distribution, which means it’s compatible with the vast majority of desktops and laptops built in the last ten years. In fact, pretty much the only type of computer that’s unable to run Joli OS is older Macs with the PowerPC architecture – any PC currently running Windows can be switched to Joli OS without any real problem.
The distribution is available in two formats: a raw disc image, which allows a user to install Joli OS on any system that can boot from a CD, DVD, or USB drive, and a clever guided installation file which allows the operating system to be installed alongside Windows, with the user being able to choose which of the two operating systems they want to run each time the computer restarts.
Both installation methods have their advantages and disadvantages: the Windows-based installer means that you don’t have to get rid of your existing operating system, and you’ll have access to any files that you already saved on your laptop in Windows; installing the operating system from the ISO image results in a ‘cleaner’ installation, and for those installing on a netbook with limited storage space means the maximum possible space is available in Joli OS.
Not that you should find yourself running out of space: as befits its ‘cloud’ logo, and similarly to Google’s Chrome OS, the majority of the platform’s work is carried out on the Internet using a browser that’s cleverly designed to make websites look as if they’re a desktop application. In fact, the browser used in Joli OS is Chromium, the open-source version of Google’s Chrome browser, which underpins the Chrome OS operating system.
Working in the cloud
Using websites in this way is a great idea for those running the operating system on older netbooks with 4GB or 8GB SSDs, as it means that a complex image editor that would normally take up a few hundred megabytes of local storage can be run from a shortcut just a few kilobytes in size.
Even applications like an office suite are web-based, using Google Docs – the same as Chrome OS – as its default option. Any documents created using Google Docs are stored on Google’s own servers, meaning they take up no space on the local machine, are automatically backed up in case of hardware failure or loss, and can be accessed from any machine – and even from a smartphone or other portable device.
Lost without the Net?
Sadly, the reliance on cloud-based apps does come with a major disadvantage: when you’re not connected to the Internet, the operating system becomes significantly less useful. Any web-based apps that you would normally use – Pilxr for image editing, Google Docs for word processing, and Gmail for email, for example – become unavailable.
With Google’s Chrome OS, that’s a major problem: the operating system doesn’t include any local equivalents, meaning that once you’re disconnected your laptop becomes all-but-unusable. Thankfully, Joli OS’s ‘hybrid’ nature means that it avoids this particular pitfall: while web apps aren’t usable offline, users have the option to install many of the local applications that are included in Ubuntu’s repositories such as the OpenOffice.org productivity suite, The Gimp image editor, and the Gedit text editor.
That said, being disconnected from the internet still definitely limits the operating system’s usefulness. If you spend much of your time offline, Joli OS is unlikely to offer much that a more traditional Linux distribution such as Ubuntu or OpenSUSE wouldn’t give you. For those who hop from hotspot to hotspot – or who have a 3G broadband dongle, MiFi router, or smartphone with tethering capability, a sizeable subset of which are supported in Joli OS by default – that’s not so much of an issue.
The big issue – as with any non-mainstream operating system – is compatibility. While we didn’t have any trouble installing Joli OS on our test machine – an Acer Aspire One netbook with an Intel Atom processor – users with more esoteric systems may find that certain features don’t work, including audio and network connectivity.
Although this was a bigger problem in earlier releases, it’s much less of an issue with Joli OS 1.2. That doesn’t mean that it’s gone away entirely, however, and if you’re thinking of installing it as your primary operating system, it’s worth creating a Joli OS USB key first. This creates a bootable device that lets you try the operating system without actually installing it, giving you the chance to check that all your hardware works as expected.
Users who have previously tried other Linux distributions may find fewer compatibility issues with Joli OS, thanks to the inclusion of proprietary drivers and non-free software as standard. It’s a nice nod to keeping the system as easy to use as possible, but if you’re a free software purist may mean that the operating system isn’t a good fit.
Joli OS is a remarkably lightweight distribution, and works well on even slower hardware. While it needs more memory than an ultra-small distribution like Puppy Linux, it works tolerably well with 256MB of RAM and performs near-flawlessly with 1GB.
The exception, of course, is in the applications that you install. Most web-based applications require little memory, doing most of the heavy lifting on the server side. Others tap in to the browser’s HTML5 capabilities to perform client-side computation, and if you’re accessing one of these you might find that your system is a little less responsive than usual.
Locally installed applications perform pretty much the same as on any other distribution, as befits the distribution’s Ubuntu roots. It’s also possible to access a more familiar GNOME-based desktop rather than the web-based, icon-heavy default interface – although if you find yourself doing so frequently you may want to question why you installed Joli OS in the first place.
The list of software available for Joli OS is impressive: with the most popular local packages from Ubuntu’s repositories combined with a wealth of web-based ‘cloud’ apps, there’s likely to be something to cover every possible need.
The ‘cloud’ features of the platform extend beyond its use of web apps, too: by signing up as a Jolicloud user, apps can be recommended to friends via a Twitter-style social networking system, and web apps can even be access from other systems using a web browser accessing Jolicloud’s website.
Support for third-party online file storage services such as Dropbox is also included, meaning that you can move all of your files into the cloud – even ones that are stored locally on your system by non-web-based applications.
The Joli OS 1.2 release also brings in the ability to make web apps of your own: simply enter the address of a website into the main interface, and Joli OS adds it as an icon to your desktop. Once ‘installed’ in this manner, such an app is indistinguishable from an ‘official’ web app – although you won’t be able to access it if you’re not connected to the Internet.
Best Point: The slick integration with cloud-based services and the ability to use your Joli OS desktop from any machine with a browser is certainly impressive.
- Slick integration with cloud-based services; ability to use your Joli OS desktop from any machine with a browser.
- If you're not connected to the Internet, much of what makes Joli OS special is inaccessible.
Joli OS is a great distribution for anyone who finds themselves spending more and more time in their browser. It's more flexible than Google's Chrome OS, and works on cheaper hardware, allowing you to convert older netbooks and laptops into Joli OS systems with ease.
The dual-boot capabilities are handy, and the fact that the system can be installed - and uninstalled - from within Windows makes it more readily accessible by less technical types, something with which other Linux distributions still struggle.
Sadly, the technology still isn't quite there yet: when web apps start to offer offline functionality - something which Google has been promising to introduce into its Docs productivity suite since it removed the Google Gears add-on for Firefox, but which has yet to see the light of day - it will be a far more useful system, but for now it's only really an option for people who rarely use their machines away from an Internet connection.