The eyeOS project describes itself
as an open source "web desktop" — by which it means an
operating system that emulates a functional desktop environment entirely
within a single web page. The benefits certainly sound appealing: privacy,
access to your files from anywhere on the Internet, and the ability to collaborate in real-time with other users. In addition, eyeOS is AGPLv3-licensed, which makes it high on the list of software-freedom protecting web services. Still, as of February 2011, there are scores of competing ways to accomplish remote-desktop-access and real-time collaboration, so eyeOS has a tough case to make for many users.
To get a clearer picture of what makes eyeOS different from other Web-enabled desktop suites, one has to look at both the interface and the architecture. After all, AbiWord, Zoho, Google Docs, EtherPad, and even Microsoft Office now allow online collaboration on standard office tasks.
The base eyeOS system comes with a small contingent of installed applications: networking, office tools, utilities, and so on, but both the front-end and back-end APIs are open. Over the years a respectable collection of third-party eyeOS software has been developed by the community. Installing a new application requires administrative access to the eyeOS server, but it can be done through the eyeOS desktop interface itself.
You can create a new user account and test an eyeOS session on the
public eyeOS server to get a feel for the system. Visiting the try it now
page on eyeOS.org, you will notice two options, version 1.x and version
2.x, both of which as marked as "stable" and "to be used
in production environments." The version 1.x
code (which appears to be at release 1.9) has been in development since
2007. Version 2.x
is a rewrite begun in March of 2010. The instance running on the public
server sometimes shows 2.1 and sometimes 2.2 as its version number;
presumably it is 2.2 with the occasional overlooked HTML update.
The project advertises more than 250 applications available for eyeOS 1.x and more than 20 for 2.x, but those numbers count third-party applications (most hosted at eyeos-apps.org), not what is available on the demo servers. I spent some time with version 2.x first, but the lack of application availability inspired me to test-drive 1.x as well. Even after digging through the wiki, discussion forum, and main web site, I am still not sure whether or not the public "try it now" server is a free service offered by eyeOS, or a demo limited in storage space, time, or some other resource. You are required to create an account to sign on as a new user, and provide an email address, but the email address is not validated as part of the user creation process. I hope I have not been subscribed to a marketing list as a result.
After having worked with both incarnations of eyeOS for about a day, I have mixed feelings about the implementation. On the one hand, the system is surprisingly fast: the GUI is understandably slower than working with native desktop applications, but it is approximately on par with running a local virtual machine inside VirtualBox. Features that I expected to be flaky, such as sound and mouse wheel support, worked without incident. On the other hand, there is a surprising lack of polish, particularly in the older 1.x system, where one would expect the kinks to have been worked out years ago.
The user interface is inconsistent from application to application — particularly with the desktop widgets — as is the terminology (for example, there is an application variously called "eyeOS Board" and "eyeBoard" at different places in the interface). The icons are a mix of flat, 3-D, head-on and 45-degree angle perspectives, drawn in different styles and color schemes. Some of the default UI widgets are impossible-to-read, such as white text on light gray. Changing the theme requires you to "restart" your session — but there is no session restart option, only logging out entirely and logging back in manually. The system menu is in the bottom-right-corner, and uses an icon that is not quite the eyeOS logo, and looks confusingly similar to the familiar "power button" symbol. Most surprisingly, when I attempted to open the "Documents" folder in my home directory, the built-in file manager did not know how to do so, and popped up an application-selection window asking me to find the right launcher.
2.x is a bit better in terms of UI consistency, although it too suffers from mix-and-match iconography. More seriously, the application launchers on the desktop did not work, although that hiccup is ironically solved due to there being two additional sets of launchers always visible on the upper and lower desktop panels. Several of the default applications had non-functioning menu items (most noticeably the calendar, where calendar feed properties cannot be edited). If you open a new file in the text editor, it will throw away all of your changes to the current document without affording you the opportunity to save them.
Looking past the UI issues, however, there are some intrinsic properties of the system that I grew frustrated with rather quickly. For starters, I noticed that all applications start off at very small window sizes when launched, generally too small to be used without resizing. Upon reflection, though, that behavior is probably a workaround to account for the fact that the entire desktop is running in a frame within a window within your existing desktop environment: there is simply less real estate to go around.
The scarcity of screen space is exacerbated by the use of the desktop metaphor itself: things like having another task manager inside the browser and having window title bars for every application eat up space, but they don't make the applications more usable. By a similar token, eyeOS requires the user to manually log out of an eyeOS session (like one would on a desktop system) — simply closing the browser or navigating away does not close the session. That behavior makes sense if the goal is emulating a desktop OS, but it results in a security hole that undermines one of the stated goals of the project: keeping your files safe.
I was also disappointed in the default application set. Were it not for the novelty of running inside the browser, eyeOS would be a pretty weak desktop product: the calendaring application cannot subscribe to remote calendars, the word processor is minimalist, the calculator is four-function only. It is confusing to me why eyeOS 1.x needs to have a web browser application (although I was pleased to discover that you can run eyeOS from within the eyeOS browser).
Beyond the desktop
Perhaps eyeOS defenders would point me towards the still-growing library of additional applications available for installation as a way to enhance the experience. To a point, they are entirely right: if you run your own server, you can provide a considerably richer environment for your eyeOS users. It is even possible to enable Microsoft Office file format support within eyeOS's applications; this is done by installing OpenOffice.org on the server, along with the xvfb X server. There are eyeOS applications that enhance the default desktop experience with better PDF support, improved email, and additional communication tools like IRC.
But ultimately I am not persuaded that running eyeOS applications within
the eyeOS environment in the browser offers a better computing
experience than does simply running existing open source web applications.
If you browse the eyeos-apps.org application repository, most of the
non-trivial applications are ports of existing projects, like RoundCube,
Moodle, or Zoho. Considering that you need access to a full LAMP stack to
run your own instance of eyeOS, I see little advantage to running any of
those applications within the containerized environment, simply because it
emulated the existence of a desktop underneath. It is certainly not easier
to deploy RoundCube within eyeOS than it is to deploy it on your own
server, nor is it easier to secure, nor will it run faster or be easier for
users to learn.
As always, there is a trade-off
involved, including the configuration work required when you are talking
about supporting a large group of users. In my estimation, the default
eyeOS applications don't provide a powerful enough experience to say that
its simpler deployment process ultimately makes the administrator's job
easier than individually setting up other open source file sharing and
collaboration tools. EyeOS has a basic new user "skeleton" directory
system, but at the moment lacks robust tools for managing and
pre-configuring applications for big deployments.
Standing alone, the term "web desktop" could be interpreted to mean a variety of different things. ChromeOS, for example, tries to be a "web desktop" by replacing all client-side applications with web apps. On the other end of the spectrum, more and more GNOME and KDE applications are gaining the ability to seamlessly integrate network collaboration, and with the popularity of "cloud storage" services like Ubuntu One, Dropbox, and the like, it is even possible for a Linux user to store his or her desktop preferences on a remote server, thus making the same environment available everywhere. EyeOS is certainly an innovative approach to the "web desktop," but at the moment, I'm not sure it offers a compelling advantage over the web-and-desktop integration already occurring in other areas.
to post comments)