Written by Emre Sokullu and edited by Richard MacManus

Over the past few weeks, we have examined possible GoogleOS scenarios and covered top WebOS offerings. GravityZoo is a very early stage WebOS, with a whole different - and noteworthy - approach.

What the heck is a WebOS again?

Firstly, let's revisit what a WebOS is. A WebOS is a web-based app (generally powered by either AJAX or Flash technologies) that emulates the application capabilities of an operating system. It's basically a virtual desktop that gives you communication tools (like email and instant messaging), productivity tools like word processing, and ability to play games and any other application that you'd find on a typical OS like Microsoft Windows. 

But that's not all - a WebOS should be an expandable platform (just like Windows) that gives developers the right tools (IDE, APIs) to develop new applications and add new utilities. And that's the advantage of a Web-based "OS" - it gives you the new ability to use it remotely and not be restricted to one PC. This is a huge need in today's world, because increasingly we use more than one computer from various different locations. So each time we sit down to a computer, a different scene awaits us - different applications and different documents. WebOS can solve this inefficiency, by taking your productivity with you everywhere you go.

A WebOS can take many forms. Some, like YouOS, are fully browser-based. All you need to do is browse to an address and login - just like any browser-based web app. Other WebOS systems require you to download and install a small application, namely a client that communicates with the WebOS servers - usually from another protocol than the standard HTTP, to bring some extra advantages into the game. 

GravityZoo is more the second type. You need to install an app to start using it; just browsing to http://gravityzoo.com is not enough. Although this makes it more of a pain to get started, it offers several advantages in functionality - namely the potential to be much faster and more secure.

The GravityZoo Experience

Brace yourself, GravityZoo is a daunting program and the terminology alone took Richard and I some time to figure out! 

When you launch GravityZoo, by default it literally covers the whole screen. You virtually lose all your connection with the operating system and enter the GravityZoo space. However after launch, you have the option to reduce the GravityZoo UI to simply another window inside your Windows screen. Here's a screenshot illustrating the full screen launch:

One immediate problem though is that GravityZoo is extremely slow! This is because GravityZoo is a platform on top of a platform: Microsoft .NET 2.0

When you start the program, as shown above, you see two options Web and Net:

The Web option is a custom browser - there is a version powered by the Gecko Engine of Firefox, plus a version based on the IE engine (kind of like the Maxthon browser). Gecko is a good choice for future cross-compatibility. 

The Net option is GravityZoo's own desktop client, very confusingly called "NetBrowser". They seem to have a widget server that communicates with the client app. Is this a better approach? In one sense it is, because it is probably more efficient and secure than standard HTTP protocols. But on the other hand, it is not a standard web app platform and GravityZoo has created its own APIs, with the hope that it will become a de-facto standard. This is similar to the approach of Laszlo, which recently entered into the WebOS space. But Laszlo did so by open sourcing and releasing under a liberal license their platform, called OpenLaszlo


Net Browser - currently there are a very limited number of applications


Sample Application - Four In a Row


Web Browser - exactly the same as Internet Explorer or Firefox

Criticism

Apart from the terminology confusing the heck out of Read/WriteWeb's editor (!), as of now GravityZoo only supports Windows. This may be considered a big disadvantage, because if the purpose is to usurp the applications that run on an OS, then why does it only run on a single operating system - particularly a non-free one? However, as stated above, GravityZoo is still in the prototype stage - so Windows is an acceptable platform as the most popular operating system.

One concern is GravityZoo's .NET 2.0 framework foundation. This is absolutely not a dependency that the average user can satisfy without guidance. However this won't be a problem for Vista users, as .NET 2.0 is pre-installed on that.

It should be noted that we encountered frequent errors, no doubt because the product is still early in its development.

Conclusion

Although it's confusing now for the average user, even tech-savvy ones, GravityZoo is definitely a unique concept that is worth keeping an eye on. But my biggest concerns are:

  • the hot competition in the WebOS space;
  • it's not entirely clear if this is actually a WebOS, because the "Net" app does not use web standards;
  • and as Paul Graham stated after the failure of Kiko, this is a project that Google internal staff are probably already working on!