Take Your Work Into the Cloud With a Web OS

Web OS
If you travel, use more than one computer for work, or depend on a smartphone for business, you might find it difficult to keep all your files in sync and up-to-date. But with a Web-based virtual computer, you can ensure that your data remains synced and organized across all your devices while using a single, consistent interface on every computer you work from. In this article I'll explain what a Web OS is, what the benefits are, and how you can put one to work.

What's a Web OS?

Icloud is one of several robust Webtops available for free.
A Web OS, sometimes called a Webtop or a cloud computer, is a virtual machine that lives online--but when you're logged in to one, it can be nearly indistinguishable from a regular desktop OS. In most cases the menus and icons of a Web OS look similar to those of Windows, complete with a taskbar, a desktop with customizable wallpaper, a file browser, and productivity and communications apps. But because a Web OS doesn't reside on your local computer, you can access the same desktop--along with all your apps, files, and personal settings--on almost any device that has a Web browser.

Prominent examples of Web OSs include G.ho.st, Glide OS, and Icloud. For a comparison of these and other Web OS services, see Ian Paul's "9 Web-Based Office Productivity Suites." Because G.ho.st is my personal favorite, I'll be using it for most of this tutorial. The truth, however, is that no clear leader has arisen in the Webtops arena, and personal taste is an even greater factor in selecting the best Web OS for you than it is in choosing a favorite desktop OS.

Why Go With the Web?

For users who have only one computer, or who seldom need to share files between a work PC and a home PC, adding a Web OS into the mix will likely prove needlessly complicated. But if you move between multiple PCs often and you don't want to fret about syncing files all over the place, a Web OS can be even better than a thumb drive for storing everything and providing a consistent experience across multiple platforms.

In the process of writing this article, I sat in front of at least three different computers running two different operating systems. (And not just to prove a point about Web OSs, either.) But because I used G.ho.st, at any time I could easily move to a different PC, boot it up, log in, and pick up where I had left off. All of my icons were in the same place, and all of the apps and menus were the same. And because all of that sits on a remote Web server, I didn't have to worry about forgetting my thumb drive when I moved from my home office to my office office.

In addition to its persistent browser-based interface, G.ho.st comes in a mobile version that lets you download your files from a smartphone in a pinch.

One big advantage of a Web OS is that its performance doesn't depend much on the speed of your computer. This makes such a setup great for use on an aging laptop or an underpowered netbook. Web OS performance will, however, depend a great deal on the speed of your Internet connection, especially if you're transferring files back and forth, so be sure you have a reliable broadband service or you'll experience sluggish response times from your cloud-based apps.

Get Started

You don't need much to start using a Web OS right now. Once you've chosen a service, just visit its site from any Internet-connected desktop or laptop computer and sign up for a free account. After a quick registration, you'll be staring at your new virtual desktop for the first time.

G.ho.st lives in your browser, but it looks like a desktop unto itself.
While the interfaces for different Web OS services vary slightly, they tend to follow the basic layout that Windows popularized. In G.ho.st, the taskbar runs across the bottom of the screen just as it does in Windows, and a Go button is located where the Start button would be. You'll also find a Quick Launch bar just to the right of the Go button, and a system tray to the far right of the taskbar.

The G.ho.st desktop gives you rapid access to a few of the most important features of your virtual machine, including a link to all of your programs, the control panel, mail, and an instant messenger application that supports AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger. Want to get started with a text document or spreadsheet right away? Launch Zoho Writer or Zoho Sheets directly from the desktop and start typing. You might also try the 'Take the Tour' link on the desktop, which will get you oriented quickly.

File Management

Assuming that you don't plan on using your Web OS as your primary PC all the time, you'll want to start managing your files intelligently from the moment you log on. While you certainly can just upload files from your desktop to the Web OS one by one, or even in batches, the better approach is to use the built-in syncing features to manage files on all your machines automatically.

Download and install the G.ho.st Sync utility on your desktop to keep your files current between your virtual machine and your real machine.
In G.ho.st, you'll find the appropriately named Sync utility, available in both Windows and Mac versions from the Ghost Services menu. Select the version for the computer you happen to be using, and download and run the installer. Afterward, enter your log-in info and set the options as you see fit. The best choice is to sync in both directions and set conflict resolution to keep the newest version of each file. You can also choose to simply append "~deleted" to the file names of old versions, which can prevent you from losing important data if something goes wrong.

G.ho.st Lite gives you access to your G.ho.st account and files from a smartphone Web browser.
Mobile Access

Though not all Webtops offer a mobile version of their services, G.ho.st does. However, not all of the service's features will work in all mobile browsers. Be sure that your phone supports JavaScript and that the feature is enabled; otherwise you won't be able to download your files to the device. To work with the files once you've download them, you'll need an editing program and/or a viewing app installed on your mobile device.

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