July 24, 2007

eyeOS: A genuine Web OS

Author: Dmitri Popov

Portable applications can come in handy when you are on the move, but there are situations when using them is not an option. For instance, before you connect an external hard disk or a USB stick to a public computer, you have to ask permission. More importantly, even if you get permission, you can never be sure what kind of nasty viruses and malware you will be getting on your storage device. But why bother with portable applications at all when you can have your very own Web-based operating system bundled with a few essential applications? That's the promise of eyeOS -- an impressive and surprisingly useful open source Web-based OS.

Unlike most Web desktops that require you to create an account and rely on their service, eyeOS offers you two options. The hosted version of eyeOS allows you to create a free account and use the system without getting your hands dirty installing, configuring, and maintaining it. The major drawback of using the hosted solution is that you can't log in as root, which means that you won't be able to install additional applications, among other things.

Alternatively, you can install eyeOS on your own server, which gives you complete control over the system. If you decide to go the DIY route, you'll be pleased to know that installing eyeOS is a complete doddle. Since eyeOS doesn't require a database back end, all you need is an Apache server and PHP. Moreover, eyeOS has its own installer that does all the donkey work for you. Download the latest version of the eyeOS package, unpack it, move the resulting folder to your server, and point the browser to http://yourserver/eyeos/install.php. The installer does the rest for you; all you need to do is configure is a root account and enable the Create New Users feature. Once eyeOS is installed, create a new regular user account and use it to log in to the system.


The eyeOS's Desktop looks a lot like a conventional Linux desktop. There is a Home folder and a Trash can on the Desktop, and you can access all the installed applications using the tab at the top of the window. The green eyeOS button on the Desktop gives you access to Settings and Applications, and you can use the button to run applications from the "command line" as well as close the current session.

The default application bundle may seem a bit too skimpy, but it has all the basic needs covered. eyeFiles is a file manager that allows you to create and manage folders as well as upload and download files and documents. Since you can upload virtually any type of file, you can use eyeOS to store files and documents you might need when you are on the move. The eyeDocs editor caters for your word processing needs. It sports all the essential formatting tools, including different fonts styles, numbered and bulleted lists, tables, and inline images. Although the documents created with eyeDocs are saved with the .eyedoc extension, they are just plain HTML files, so you can download and open them in any HTML editor or word processor.

The eyeCalendar application is a simple calendar that allows you to add and manage appointments and events. However, its usefulness is severely limited by the complete lack of support for calendar sharing and subscription. You can't import or export the calendar, either. Things look a little better for the eyeContacts tool, since you can use it to import and export contacts in the standard vCard format supported by any address book application worth its salt.

eyeOS also features a Web browser called eyeNav. Using a browser in a browser may seem silly, but it actually makes sense: eyeNav leaves no traces of data on the computer you are using, thus providing complete privacy. There is also an RSS reader in form of eyeRSS. It's a no-frills RSS tool that can help you to check your favorite feeds. However, in its current incarnation, eyeRSS is a bit finicky about RSS feeds: there are quite a few that it simply refuses to parse.

Like a conventional OS, eyeOS allows you to install additional applications available in the system's "repository" using the eyeSoft tool. To install an application, log into eyeOS as root, press the eyeOS button, choose Launch App, type "eyesoft" (sans quotes), and press the Run button. This opens the Application Manager with a list of all the available applications grouped by categories. At the moment, this list is pretty short, but there is a perfectly good explanation for that. eyeOS was recently redesigned from the bottom up, and the older applications are not compatible with the new version. You can expect to see more applications in the list as the developers port them to the new eyeOS. However, even the current list contains a few useful applications, such as eyeTerre, which is a Flash-based map viewer that supports Google, Yahoo!, and NASA maps.

While eyeOS is not a dedicated collaboration tool, it does sport a few features that you can use to communicate and share documents with other eyeOS users. The eyeBoard application provides a simple message board where all users can leave messages. If you need to share a document with all eyeOS users, you can do so by simply dropping the document in the Public folder. eyeOS also allows you to create folders visible only to a selected group of users. Right now, creating such a folder requires some manual work, but an upcoming version of eyeOS promises an administration tool that will make this task significantly easier. To create a new shared folder, log in as root, select Group from the Places menu, and create a new folder. To grant a user access to the folder, you have to edit the user's configuration file. To do this, locate the username.xml file (where username is the actual user name) inside your eyeOS installation, open it in a text editor, and add the line <group>sharedfolder</group> right under <group>public</group>. Replace the sharedfolder part with the name of the shared folder you've created.

While the current version of eyeOS is somewhat light on features and the bundled applications have their limitations, this open source Web OS holds a lot of promise. If the developers fix the shortcomings of the preinstalled applications and add more installable tools to the application list, eyeOS has the potential to become a killer solution for mobile users. For now, if you need a no-nonsense lightweight Web-based desktop environment, it's definitely worth kicking eyeOS's tires.


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