Webian Shell: A New Answer to Google's Chrome OS

As computers based on Google's Chrome OS begin to trickle onto the market -- including laptops from Kogan, Samsung and Acer as well as a desktop PC from Xi3 -- a new, Mozilla-affiliated project has announced a browser-based desktop interface of its own.

Dubbed Webian Shell, the new software is "a full screen Web browser for devices that don't need a desktop," in the project's own words.

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"If you find most of the stuff you do on your PC these days happens in a Web browser, then you might find that the desktop environment you used to depend on is now just getting in your way," the project site explains. "The idea of the Webian Shell project is to re-think your computer's interface as something much simpler which treats Web applications as first class citizens and does away with all the unnecessary clutter."

Webian Shell is based on Mozilla Chromeless -- a project I wrote about back in October -- and a prototype version is now available for download, so you can already try it out for yourself. Shell 0.1 is an early working prototype that piggybacks on your existing operating system, whether it's Linux, Mac or Windows. The video embedded below demonstrates the software in action.

A Single, Minimalist Graphical Shell

Essentially, Webian Shell takes key parts of your Web browser, your desktop environment and your window manager and combines them into a single, minimalist graphical shell dedicated to using Web applications.

The software is fully open source and is built on open source technologies and open standards including HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

Though this early prototype offers primarily just a minimalist, full-screen, tabbed Web browser with a clock and a basic home screen, the project team is hoping that others will join in to help iterate the prototype with new ideas, as developer Ben Francis noted in a recent post on the Mozilla Labs site.

Open to New Ideas

Potential enhancements that could be brought to Webian Shell include multiple home screens such as are commonly seen on mobile devices, Francis notes, "but containing Web widgets and icons for 'installed' Web apps."

Hardware controls, a zoomable and tiled window manager, split-screen capabilities and an on-screen keyboard are other features Francis suggests.

The project invites many types of involvement through its development section.

'Not Tied to Any Single Vendor'

While Webian Shell is clearly an answer to Google's Chrome OS on some level, there are key differences, the project team recently noted in the comments section on its YouTube post.

Most notably, Webian Shell resulted at least in part from "the desire to build an ecosystem of Web apps not tied to any single vendor," the team explained.

After all, "you do have to have a Google account in order to use a Chrome OS device, and Google runs the only app store," it pointed out.

Mozilla's Open Web Apps project, on the other hand, "has a vision of an ecosystem for installable Web apps where anyone can run an app store, or vendors can simply host their own installable app," the team added.

More openness tends to mean better quality and more choice, as businesses and organizations the world over are increasingly realizing. This is definitely an up-and-coming project to watch.

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