A Moveable Feast

The typical Windows PC environment is a feast of technology. On a dedicated computer, you’ve got a smorgasbord of spreadsheets, word processors, databases, special applications, games, and all of your business and personal documents. But personal computers are just that: personal. If you go to another machine in the office and attempt to enjoy your feast, chances are you’ll only find scraps. Working remotely from home? You’ve likely paid for a second, unrelated feast to enjoy there. And if you’re using a relative’s computer, well, I hope you brought a Snickers bar. When it comes to using personal computer applications and data, it’s either feast or famine. Desktop.com, however, has a new development model that plans to turn computing into a moveable feast.

On the eve of the release of Windows 2000 and in the wake of Sun Microsystems unceremoniously ripping Java away from the standards committee, Desktop.com hopes to interest developers in a brand new platform. Desktop.com’s goal is to give users a PC-quality experience from any Internet-connected machine. Whether a user logs in from home, work, or Aunt Thelma’s, he can expect to see a customized desktop with his application and his personal information: e-mail, calendar, and document files. The company’s founders, Katie Burke and Larry Drebes, have developed some of the most popular universal applications on the Web, including RocketMail -- now Yahoo Mail -- Yahoo Calendar. But they didn’t want to stop at HTML-based applications. Their new environment, which runs inside a browser, offers a development environment with a virtual desktop complete with pull-down menus, drag-and-drop, and other capabilities.

The Desktop.com experience is compelling but immature. After logging in, the virtual desktop is loaded into a browser window -- a process that takes nearly a minute over a cable modem. The GUI looks like a cross between Windows and X-Windows. Available applications include a to do list, outliner, sticky notes, Web newsreader, stock tracker, a solitaire game, and some other simple applications and games. E-mail is provided via a link to free e-mail provider, mail.com. Whenever an e-mail site requires a password, it can be provided when you add the site to your desktop, enabling automatic login to all of the sites you’ve aggregated on your desktop.

Like any platform, Desktop.com will succeed only if it is able to attract developers. To that end, Desktop.com provides a beta integrated development environment (IDE) and API called DevTop. Developers who don’t want to deal with creating a server infrastructure will be immediately drawn to Desktop.com. Plus, it’s appealing to have a new IDE without installing anything. The DevTop IDE, Devtool, is a simple file editor and project manager from which you can compile DevTop applications. Running the beta version in Netscape 4.08, I had trouble compiling from the IDE and had to resort to the console window.

Desktop.com has developed its own language and API (DTAPI), an extension of JavaScript that includes inheritance, functions, and methods. Apparently, the compilation process turns the DevTop code into true JavaScript and Dynamic HTML (DHTML), while including the required DevTop libraries.

The DTAPI includes built-in support for GUI controls that Web developers have nearly forgotten: menus, re-sizeable windows, layout managers, and standard dialog boxes, among others. DTAPI also has built-in support for persistent objects, which allow programmers to store instances of their custom classes directly to a file within the Desktop.com environment. DTAPI applications can be decomposed into packages for efficient on-demand downloading to the browser. Reading the source code for a DevTop application is a joy when compared with reading a typical scripted HTML application.

Now the bad news: Although Internet Explorer (IE) and Netscape are both supported in theory, apparently browsers can mysteriously stop accepting compressed HTML files -- a Desktop.com requirement -- and stop a program from running at all. Desktop.com’s staff was helpful but ultimately unsuccessful at solving the problem on either IE4 or IE5. All my analysis was done via Netscape. A problem like this underscores the vulnerability of a platform built on top of another platform or two.

Other immediate concerns include privacy of information, particularly stored passwords of other Web sites. Despite a reasonable security policy, I’d be much more inclined to upload information to Desktop.com if everything stored on the site was encrypted.

Desktop.com offers an intriguing paradigm for global access to the computing banquet. Today, the feast more closely resembles a light lunch, and there are a few pieces of rotten fruit hiding in the basket. Although immature, Desktop.com’s premise is so sound that they will either succeed in creating a moveable computing feast, or they will inadvertently provide the recipes to Microsoft and Sun. --Eric Binary Anderson is a development manager at PeopleSoft’s PeopleTools division (Pleasanton, Calif.) and has his own consulting business, Binary Solutions. Contact him at ebinary@yahoo.com.