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Not long ago I did an article on social operating systems for netbooks. The basic concept of these social operating systems is to create a Linux based operating system which attempts to integrate social networking features more tightly into the operating system itself. In theory this has two major benefits. One is that it increases the social networking experience by making it more immediate and more integrated into the process. The second is it improves social networking programs by stream-lining and standardizing the interfaces.
Jolicloud was one of the operating systems in my round-up, and I now am going to take a closer look at it. It is currently in a semi-open alpha (you have to apply, but anyone who does so seems to be accepted within a week) so I'm going to try and stay away from issues of stability and driver support and focus more on how the operating system's interface is set up and how well it accomplishes the goal of creating an operating system which integrates with social networking.
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Installation is an important part of any operating system, and it can be particularly important for free Linux-based operating systems because some of them are actually rather unfriendly to the user who is trying to install them. Presumably an social operating system is going to need a decent sized user-base to reap the rewards of social interaction, so it would be no good if technical barriers kept people from diving in.
As it would turn out - in spite of Jolicloud's alpha status - there is no bad news to report on this front. Joliclound installed from my thumb drive in about forty minutes, including the time interacting with the install interface to choose passwords, time zones, etc. The installer easily created a partition for the Jolicloud operating system and automatically set up my netbook so that it now gives me the option to enter Jolicloud or Windows XP whenever the netbook is booted up.
So, that's one hurdle down. But how is Jolicloud to live with on a day-to-day basis?
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While pleasing installation hinted that the operating system might be pleasantly mature, using Jolicloud for more than ten minutes makes it very clear that there is a lot of work to be done. It would seem that the interface elements one would normally expect have been loaded into a shotgun shell and then fired into space. Wherever they end up, well, thats just where they are. As state, Jolicloud is in alpha, but the interface is a fairly fundamental part of the experience and it is clear the Jolicloud needs a lot of work before its ready to stand up again Ubuntu or any of the other popular Linux operating systems.
There are many gripes to be had about the interface, but the most serious is the apparent lack of a desktop. There is instead a sort of home page from which various folders, system settings, and applications can be accessed. I understand why this might seem to be a good idea, as netbook screen space is so limited that one will usually be working with only a single window at a time, but there are certainly situations where having multiple windows open at once is a good idea. Doing so is, I will note, not impossible - but it is very clunky as it causes the home page interface to disappear.
The task bar is also cumbersome. An application which is opened results in a tiny icon at the top left of the screen. The icons are only differentiated by program, so if there is no way to tell the contents of three different minimized browser windows which are open at once. This just doesn't make any sense, and it leads one to feel that Jolicloud is trying to reinvent the wheel.
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The Social Networking Pitfall
Of course, some interface problems could be excused if Jolicloud could pull off social networking features that set it apart from the crowd. An operating system that could automatically notify you of twitter updates or allow you to enter Facebook comments without logging into the website would be extremely cool and would allow some interface problems to be forgiven.
And yet, it is unclear what exactly Jolicloud is trying to do different from any other operating system. I was extremely excited when I first booted it up and began installing Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter from the Jolicloud Dashboard, a interface tool which allows for easy installation of some common programs. They installed quickly enough. I ran Gmail, expecting to see some kind of smooth interface well integrated into the operating system. Instead I received a glorified browser window, which I soon discovered to be Mozilla Prism. Supposedly, the purpose of Mozilla Prism is to separate web applications from the main web browser. The question is, why? Using Jolicloud to open Gmail to Mozilla Prism is no different than opening Gmail in Firefox except there is no way to navigate anywhere else on the web. I could, of course, minimize Gmail and open Facebook in another Mozilla Prism window by clicking on it in the Jolicloud Internet menu, but doing so is actually less intuitive and more time consuming than it would be to open a new tab and type in the url.
One feature that Jolicloud has which is new and interesting is the My Jolicloud dashboard. The idea here is that one can befriend other Jolicloud users and then follow their activities via Twitter-like updates. It is a novel idea, and one worth growing, as people could use Jolicloud to seamlessly see what their friends are into. Except there is a big problem - it is a Jolicloud feature, and thats it. Even the biggest geeks with have only a few friends using Jolicloud, so what's the point?
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The Future of Jolicloud
I have been harsh in this look at the Jolicloud alpha. Being an alpha, it is possible that Jolicloud will be polished into a priceless gem. But I doubt it. The problems here do not have to do with driver support, and they do not have to do with bugs. They have to do with fundamental features of the operating system.
In other words, Jolicloud's current approach is simply a non-starter. The interface needs a serious overhaul and the social networking features are entirely overwhelming. With Google Chrome supposedly due out next year, this is sink or swim. Jolicloud needs to get its act together, or else be essentially erased by Google's upcoming OS.