At last night's COLUG meeting we had a presentation from Stoneware on their webOS product, a virtualized desktop environment delivered through a web browser. Rick, the presenter, ran though a quick set of slides covering the what, why, and how, and then moved to a live demonstration of their product. His laptop was connected to the facility's WiFi network, and phoned home back to Stoneware's demo server through the Internet. The connection speed wasn't remarkable -- either T1 or business DSL -- and yet the web-based desktop he accessed performed superbly well.
Although the real benefit is serving web-based apps in a consistent desktop "container" to users, it's also possible to execute applications through Remote Desktop, Citrix ICA, and Terminal Services, all delivered to the browser. The client is a wee bit more than your typical thin-client solution, but not by much: all you need is a desktop capable of running a web browser. (I immediately thought of WebConverger, which would make a perfect diskless client for WebOS.)
As more and more applications transition from standard installed programs to web-based and "software as a service", WebOS will become increasingly useful for consolidating the presentation and delivery of all of these hosted solutions. WebOS supports all the major browsers and mobile devices. The presentation can mimic major desktop systems' look-and-feel (WinXP and Mac OSX "themes" were demoed), as well as provide a more traditional "portal" view, complete with widgets. Users can navigate network file shares, launch multiple applications, and do basically everything they would normally do with a traditional desktop system.
One need not carry around a laptop: as long as you can access a computer with a browser and establish an HTTPS connection to your WebOS server, you can have your complete desktop environment from wherever you are. The only other component necessary for some operations is a Java runtime environment (JRE), and that's only necessary for a few specific actions: the bulk of your work can be accomplished with just the plain browser. The lack of client-side software makes WebOS an extremely appealing solution for a great many environments. It allows the organization to consolidate their server hardware, stop worrying about managing client systems, and also centralize all their data within the corporate firewall while still allowing remote users to access and use that data.
WebOS doesn't solve the problem of working offline, as one might want to do while on an airplane, for example, but you can transfer files from the WebOS server instance to the local computer if necessary. It's possible to copy files from the WebOS interface onto the local computer's clipboard, allowing one to paste files directly into the local filesystem (or from the local system to the WebOS file system!). Rick even demonstrated that it's possible to access a file on the WebOS server but manipulate it locally, having the changes transparently saved back to the server: he right-clicked on a PowerPoint file in the WebOS file browser and selected "edit". This copied the file to his local computer and opened it in PowerPoint. Rick made a minor change, and clicked "Save" within PowerPoint. There was a brief pause as the file was sent back to the WebOS server, and then the file browser showed the updated modification time. Opening the file a second time showed Rick's changes. Currently the whole file is transmitted both ways, but future versions will send back only the delta, to improve transmit times.
Needless to say I was thoroughly impressed with Stoneware's WebOS solution. Their evaluation download permits one to host five concurrent users at no cost, so it should be relatively easy to try it out if you're interested. I can see several potential uses of WebOS in my current job, and I'll definitely be talking about it with my coworkers.