A Prism for Jolicloud: Web-Centric Desktop Apps

I recently bought a netbook and installed Jolicloud, a Linux/Ubuntu distro designed as a replacement for, or companion to, Windows. Jolicloud was a revelation, something fresh and new in the seemingly snail-paced world of desktop computing. The bold idea of Jolicloud is that the browser is the operating system. It’s all you need and you don’t need to even think about it. The browser is a core service that supports all applications but it can recede into the background and let applications take the foreground.


The Samsung N210 netbook had Windows 7 Starter installed. I’ll admit my discomfort with Windows. It’s actually not so much the operating system itself, as it is the ecosystem that surrounds it. The desktop is cluttered with icons from the manufacturer and other add-ons, which seem to activate on their own. I don’t want them yet I can’t disable them easily. I realized that Windows has become like a carnival, with barkers trying to get my attention (and money) at every turn. I tried Windows 7 long enough to realize that it was really no different on a netbook than it was on a desktop. Windows. Same old, same old.

In fact, I bought the netbook to see if it was suitable as a computer for my mother. I want to help her be connected online to her family but she was frequently confused by the Windows desktop and its many applications and pop-up windows. AOL was just as confusing, layered on top of Windows. I tried moving her to Gmail and removing what I could from the desktop but it still became cluttered and she became so confused that she cancelled her Internet service. (I don’t live in the same city as my mom so my ability to provide ongoing tech support is limited.)

A friend, Alberto Gaitán from DC, recommended trying Jolicloud on a netbook. Jolicloud was developed by Tariq Kim, who also created NetVibes. He had a vision of devices running an Internet Operating System, influenced by ideas from Tim O’Reilly. Here’s an excerpt from the Jolicloud manifesto:

Jolicloud … combines the two driving forces of the modern computing industry: the open source and the open web.

Jolicloud transforms your netbook into a sophisticated web device that taps into the cloud to expand your computing possibilities. The web already hosts a significant part of our lives: mails, photos, videos, and friends are already somewhere online. Jolicloud was built to make the computer and web part of the same experience.

Jolicloud offered something new on a non-Mac device — peace of mind. I found an operating system that was adapted to the netbook, just as Apple has modified its core system for different devices. As much as it is an advantage for Apple, it is a disadvantage for every other computer manufacturer to ship their devices with a largely unmodified version of Windows. One gripe I have is that Windows doesn’t use the more limited display space efficiently.


The Jolicloud user interface is simple and well-organized. Jolicloud is derived from Ubuntu and indeed some of the features I’m praising may also be present there. Quite frankly, it’s been years since I’ve explored a Linux desktop, believing them to be hopelessly clunky and awkward, a generic imitation of existing windowing systems.

But the big leap forward in my view for Jolicloud is how it adapts web sites to function more like desktop applications, an interface paradigm mashup of the iPhone and desktop. In Jolicloud, I launch Gmail as an application, and dozens of other services I use such as Twitter and Facebook can be organized as desktop interfaces. Like the iPhone, Jolicloud provides an Apps directory where you can choose applications to install on your netbook. In addition, Jolicloud provides cloud-based services for data storage. Jolicloud allows me to use a netbook as an alternate computer without really having to organize my data and service specifically for that computer. (I even find myself moving away from Mac-based software to web-centric services that I can use from any device.)



I learned that some of the magic behind Jolicloud’s web-centric model was made possible by the Prism project from Mozilla Labs. Mark Finkle, a Mozilla developer, created Prism but he’s now working on a Firefox mobile browser. Prism development seemed to stall for a while until recently. Prism, which will work on any operating system, allows you to turn a website into a standalone application, even creating an icon for it so that you can place in on your toolbar. If you find yourself fumbling through tabs to get back to your mail or calendar, Prism can help you move your key applications into separate windows so they can stand on their own as desktop applications.

On a netbook, Prism gives you a full-screen view of your application, and drops most of the browser functions. It’s as if the browser disappears into the operating system as a core service, one that’s shared by dozens of applications.

Interview with Matthew Gertner

I caught up with Matthew Gertner by email who has done work on Prism, particularly adapting it for Zimbra Desktop. He has been posting information about updates to Prism on his Just Browsing blog, an additional source of information on Prism developments.

Q. What I like about prism is that it makes one think of the browser as a service provided by the operating system; it allows a website to become viewed and organized as an application. It is a metaphor that is now much more prevalent given the iPhone and its apps. But Prism anticipated that direction.

MG. I am a great believer in web applications. Particular strengths are
the use of well-established, simple and standards-based languages for
application development, incredible multiplatform support and lack of
explicit install/uninstall. At the same time, there are clearly
weakness as well, tied in particular to the fact that the browser was
never designed to run applications.

Prism is one attempt to get the best of both worlds. Environments like
iPhone OS and Adobe AIR take a slightly different tack. Rather than
using the same web languages for software development as the
traditional browser, they have their own languages (CocoaTouch, Flex,
etc.) and development tools. So I wouldn’t make a direct parallel
between Prism and something like the iPhone. The latter runs apps that
are as much like traditional software as like websites. It’s true that
some of the goals are the same, and they often use web protocols
(HTTP, XML, etc.).

The big advantage of Prism, at least in the near term, is that no
development is required to make an existing web app look more like a
traditional application. You just run it in a Prism window instead of
a normal browser window. You can then customize the app with more
desktop-oriented features (tray icon, popup notifications,
drag-and-drop, etc.). With iPhone or Flex you basically have to
reimplement the entire client.

Q. I am also interested in understanding the status of Prism. It has been available for a while and it looked the original project lost some steam and then it regained some life. Is that so and if so, what or who got it going again.

MG. Prism was invented by Mark Finkle (now working on Mozilla’s mobile
browser) as a Mozilla Labs project. These projects are basically
experiments that let Mozilla try out new ideas without committing to
making a new product. They can then observe how users and the
development community react. In the case of Prism, it was quickly
picked up by Zimbra (then part of Yahoo) for Zimbra Desktop, and they
ended up hiring me to improve Prism based on their requirements. Both
Yahoo and Zimbra were awesome about donating my work back to Mozilla
so that other Prism users can benefit.

I also have a few other clients using Prism, and together their
contributions have helped move the product forward tremendously, even
if it’s been a relatively drawn-out process as you point out. I can’t
comment on Mozilla’s future plans for Prism.

Q. Jolicloud makes use of Prism but I had not heard of Prism previously but it can be used on a desktop. Are you seeing it used in other contexts outside of Jolicloud.

MG. See above. The biggest user is probably Zimbra, but there are others I
work with and doubtless many I don’t even know about. Basically if you
want a multiplatform single-site browser, Prism is still the only game
in town.

More on Prism

I’ve downloaded Prism to my Mac and used it to replace my Mail App icon with a Gmail icon on the toolbar. You can “applify” any website.


I can see other uses for Prism, even for creating web-based content that looks less like a website and more of an interactive experience like the CD-ROM game “Myst.” There’s an opportunity to break away from the constraints of the current web design paradigm, and perhaps learn from the lessons of iPhone apps. Interactions can be embedded in the application without any dependence on the browser functions outside the view window.

I’m not so sure my mom can handle the netbook but I’m going to try it. Jolicloud does allow me to customize the interface to those applications (websites) that she needs to use, which is essentially email and maybe Facebook. That’s what’s remarkable about Jolicloud and the ideas that inspired it — you can customize a device and simply its interface by integrating it more deeply with the open web.

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