Netbooks have become a bit of a haven of innovation when it comes to operating system user experience design. While proprietary operating systems have settled for just working or not being unusably slow on netbooks, Linux distributions have become drivers of change, questioning the traditional approaches to a computer desktop and designing new experiences like the "Easy Mode" interface on the Xandros Asus EEE PCs, Ubuntu's Netbook Remix interface and Intel's Moblin project. Jolicloud is a derivative of Ubuntu Netbook Remix that aims to bring "the cloud" and your netbook closer than ever before by keeping all of your data on the web and using the operating system simply as a launcher for web apps. It is still an alpha at the moment, so it might change quite a lot before release, but thanks to Dan Monsieurle I managed to get an invite (which was needed at the time) and decided to take it for a test drive on my Asus EEE PC.
Despite the alpha status of Jolicloud, it does have some polish. After downloading the image I decided to run it from an SD card in "live mode" rather than installing it to the hard disc of the EEE, so no updates got applied. I was pleased to find that the hardware all seemed to work fine (except the internal microphone which is a bit of a struggle under Ubuntu Jaunty anyway) and something that did impress me was that the whole experience seemed very stable. When you boot into Jolicloud you arrive at the familiar Ubuntu Netbook Remix (with a slightly more minimalist look) interface and a notice pops up to tell you that once you are connected to your network you can click on the "Get Started" icon, with its blue cloud. After that you are asked for the details of the machine you connect from, this is because Jolicloud ensures that you have the same applications installed on any machine that you use it with. As you have all of your data on the web this could be handy as if a machine dies theoretically you could just install Jolicloud on another one and let it sort itself out. You would be back up and running very quickly. After this step you find yourself logged into the Jolicloud homebase (that is going to confuse people in the UK where 'Homebase' is a DIY chain!).
I must admit I was a little confused by the Jolicloud homebase (ok I'm in the UK, but that wasn't why). The first thing I did was install an application, in this case Twitter. After I did that I was stuck for little while as I thought that program was the centre of the experience, but it turns out you must go back to the Netbook Remix interface to run the programs. So the homebase application seems to be an application installer, an easy to use one, but would you need to log into it everyday? Homebase also has a social side and you can choose to follow people and people can follow you. It seems you can see what applications people have installed, which might be an interesting way to discover new functionality, but beyond that I am not sure. In the top right is a prominent search box, if you type in there you will get users and applications matching your search (on separate tabs), an odd mix, but I suppose this saves screen space
The applications all have a big icon and installing them is as simple as clicking a button underneath the picture. Installation did seem a little slow, but that may be because I was running Jolicloud from an SD card. A limited number of applications appear on a "featured" tab and this is under the editorial control of Jolicloud. The rest of the applications are categorised and you can scroll through pages of them. This looks great with a limited number of applications, but I am wondering how this will scale in future? There are thousands of programs available on an Ubuntu distribution and add in all of the web applications and sites out there and you could have a very large catalogue to scroll through. The search box could be in for a lot of work. On the plus side though it is very easy to install an application which will be great for novice computer users and the graphic design of Jolicloud is very nice to look at. A new feature I would like to see is some information on an application you are curious about, I haven't heard of some of the sites they have listed and it would be great to hear what they can do for me.
The centre of Jolicloud's world is the Internet and a major difference with this over traditional operating systems is treating web applications and native applications as equals. This is a really interesting move and I think it will be something that will become standard on operating systems one day. Notice here I mention native applications, locally installed applications including OpenOffice, Cheese and Boxee are available too, Jolicloud doesn't seem to be totally about connecting to the Internet to use web sites. This might be a smart move by Jolicloud, I'm not convinced yet about the idea of home users using a thin operating system that just connects to the web, and with this move Jolicloud have cleverly designed in a bit of insurance so you can still enjoy both worlds and make the best of your machine. This is a smart way to blur online and offline worlds.
Jolicloud makes extensive use of Mozila Prism to render web applications. This is done really well and all but the top bar of the screen is available to the web application maximising the use of the smaller screens found on netbooks, something that is especially noticeable on Google Docs. Mozilla Firefox is also supplied (with Flash) so you can easily visit any other websites that don't have an application icon too. Having a properly rendered icon in the application launcher does make your perception of the difference between online and offline change in a subtle way. Despite the issues outlined earlier there is something about Jolicloud which is very likable, and gives you the impression that this is something to watch. If people continue to shift more of their activity on line they might care less about what operating system they are running, all they will care about is that they can log on to Google Docs or Facebook. Such a situation might make something like Jolicloud appealing to netbook manufacturing who could lower their prices by cutting out the cost of a proprietary operating system.