BACK IN 2005 Tariq Krim was on a roll. Krim had co-founded Netvibes, a project backed by serious VC funding. Netvibes was designed to act as a one stop shop to collate personalised information and take the complications out of digital living. Netvibes went supernova and won numerous awards across the board for its Web 2.0 savvy.
The obvious choice for Krim would have been to see out the rest of his days at Netvibes or put in for early retirement. What you wouldn't have expected him to do was hit a curve ball and release an open source, Ubuntu-based OS for netbooks called Jolicloud. But Krim told The INQUIRER that it was in fact a natural progression from his work at Netvibes.
"I always wanted to work in the computer industry; I was a big fan of the small computer boutiques of the 80s. Jolicloud is in a way a tribute to that golden era when building a computer or an OS was an art."
Krim had already used Ubuntu servers for Netvibes and had been using Linux for 18 years so the OS choice for Jolicloud was a no brainer. Despite having scant experience with desktop Linux for a while, Krim's team went full steam ahead with his next project. From initial conception to release, it took them just over a year to get Jolicloud rolled out.
"We built Jolicloud on top of Ubuntu because I met Mark Shuttleworth at a Google event and I used Ubuntu servers for Netvibes. This Debian based Linux had a good reputation and good drivers. We could have picked Fedora. To be honest we didn't spend too much time thinking about it."
Krim wanted to transplant some of the philosophies he'd put into action at Netvibes to Jolicloud. The guiding principles were to create a cloud-centric experience where simplicity led form and function.
"To build the product that has the right level of simplicity, as best described by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: 'When you have nothing to add, and nothing to remove'," Krim explained.
It's not often that The INQUIRER gets French writers quoted as the motivation for new open source projects but we'll roll with this one. Keeping on the cultured theme, Krim's approach sounds not unlike Michelangelo's: "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."
Krim said this idea for simplicity puts the user in control of the experience and at the centre of the product.
There are already a series of other cloud-driven or web-based Linux distros on the market. There are even several netbook specific OSs like Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Linux Mint or Google's Chrome Netbook flavour offering similar proposals. But Krim said that Chrome offers a different experience.
"We share a lot of technologies with Chrome OS, but we decided to use these technologies to provide a much richer experience," he said.
"Because we are independent from Google, we can smartly integrate Jolicloud with all the cool services around the web."
"Regarding native applications, we have kept Skype, VLC, Spotify, Open Office and other useful native applications so users can use the computer when it's not online. The other thing is that we have created Jolicloud so that existing netbook and computer users can upgrade their devices. For Chrome OS, you need to buy a new computer."
Taking Facebook as an example, Krim said that Jolicloud is "the first natively social operating system".
In fact, Facebook and other social network sites were key in influencing design choices for Jolicloud's user interface.
"We have been inspired by mobile OS and social networks. For us the OS is becoming another information channel, similar to Facebook or Twitter, except that this information is coming from your system or other systems that you are connected with. If you know how to use an Iphone and Facebook, you are good to go."
Krim believes that most of the other Linux distros, while cloud-centric, haven't shifted to the web when it comes to user interface design. "They are based on native technologies that are costly and hard to maintain. Jolicloud makes the bet that in the long run, maintaining an HTML5 platform will become more powerful in terms of flexibility, development costs and personalisation."
In fact HTML5 runs through the interview as an ace up Krim's sleeve for the future of Jolicloud's success. From inception, Krim wanted to take advanced technology and democratically put it in the hands of everyone, "especially when everyone says it's not ready like HTML5".
Flash wasn't even on the cards to be integrated into Jolicloud because, first and foremost, it's not open source.
"We are Open Web advocates and the choice of HTML5 was clear to us. We even started developing Jolicloud with web technologies like OAuth before browser vendors actually started to implement HTML5, because it was obvious that this web platform was to become much more powerful. Not to mention that Flash is not only proprietary, the technology and its derivative such as Adobe Air fails on Linux," Krim said.
Aside from Adobe, two other IT behemoths weren't even up for discussion as part of Krim's principles. Microsoft and Apple didn't factor into Jolicloud's equation because they offer anachronistic operating system and business models heading for obsolescence, in his view.
"Yes everything is outdated, the distribution model, the software model, the app install model, the business model and most of all, their will to make the world a better place and empower the user to move forward. Every time I use Windows, I have the feeling that it was built by people that don't care anymore."
Krim added that "open source is competitive, dogmatic, and unprofessional sometimes, but it's always better than closed software".
Ouch. But understandable given that Jolicloud is firmly entrenched in developing a project that is free to use and can run on low system resources. This frees up cheap netbooks and older PC hardware that can be given a new lease on life using Linux operating systems like Jolicloud.
"Well our mission is very clear: convince millions of users around the world that the combination of an OS like Jolicloud and using online services like online storage, productivity apps, and more, will make them forget about Windows and the old computer world. We live in a wonderful time where things can be reinvented for cheap and where technology and social networks make big ideas affordable to small teams."
Running an OS on cheap hardware, specifically netbooks, became one of three convergent factors in releasing Jolicloud at the right time. As well as seeing the cloud eco system mature and social networking sites offering an ideas base for Jolicloud, it was the netbook market that got Krim's attention. He even went so far as to say netbooks have destabilised Moore's Law.
"They put a halt on this 'buying a new computer as the only solution' craze, and help people realise that we don't need expensive and powerful computers for everything," Krim said.
"Jolicloud is easy to install and works out-of-the-box. It is designed to avoid wasting your time and leverages all the resources of the cloud and the social web to make the experience really enjoyable. The user personalises it completely, and is able to install identical copies of the OS on as many devices as he wants. You will never think of switching to a new computer in the same way again.
It is the perfect replacement for Windows and of course it's free."
The netbook OS is still based on the Gnome desktop environment until Krim's developers are ready to replace it with HTML5. When the team moves lock, stock and barrel to a fully web-driven interface, it will be removed completely. Krim reckoned his team's fastest boot time is 13 seconds on an Asus EeePC 901 with SSD, and 25 seconds on old hardware. Improving boot time is part of the Jolicloud roadmap and the team even adapted the OS to run on a 7-inch resolution netbook. But it is ease of use that Krim comes back to so it best supports the needs of its user base.
"Beyond the product itself there's a vision that we could recycle computers and give them a new life. Not everyone in this world can throw 500 bucks on an iPad and buy apps for fun. I like the idea that Jolicloud could reunite HTML5 geeks and non-savvy people around the same goal: to reinvent a computing experience that makes everyone benefit from the cloud."
Jolicloud has already made the bump to 1.0 at the start of August but it wasn't necessarily a smooth transition. The release was delayed to offer better HTML5 support and, since going live, has come in for some criticism. Some Linux quarters have complained that 1.0 stuck with the older Ubuntu 9.04.
"Don't forget that we are targeting users that are not Linux savvy and don't want to spend time doing any configuration. We don't care about new stuff if the upgrade and the stability is not there."
That's a fair point and Krim isn't trying to appease Linux aficionados with upgrades if they don't sit well with the average Jolicloud user.
"It can be scary to look at the code of certain Linux components. Since we have an out-of-the-box policy, especially with Poulsbo GMA500 drivers we have to be conservative on our choices. We have retrofitted all the Jaunty and Lucid components we needed and we have the most optimised Linux kernel for netbooks. There are many things in Ubuntu that we think are not needed, or not working properly. In this world new doesn't necessarily mean better. Anyway we are moving away from Ubuntu to a solution that could fit our user needs better. We are looking closely at what Chrome OS is doing."
What Krim required was getting things upgraded only if they could be done well with ease of use in mind. That's why Jolicloud 1.0 worked so hard to get multi-touch support and 3G.
"With Jolicloud, a lot of things like touch support happened because of our will to make them happen. Then it is just a matter of time to build it. The same goes for 3G, we provide better support than Ubuntu. Unfortunately some distros don't really care about getting things to work out-of-the-box."
Not one to hold his tongue, Krim continued, "They care about the latest Gnome release to be included or some obscure optimisation. The result speaks for itself: look at the market share of desktop Linux. We intend to change that."
Moving his reproaches back to the industry behemoths, Krim said that netbook manufacturers are taking bites of Jolicloud. However, he believes they are worried about potential retaliation from Microsoft.
"I didn't know the computer industry from the inside but I discovered a world that lives in fear of upsetting their two main component suppliers: Intel and Microsoft."
If they do bite, Jolicloud will have the same exponential growth rate that hit Netvibes in 2005. Even if netbook manufacturers are frightened by the might of Chipzilla and the Vole, users will wipe whatever OS was bundled on their systems and install Jolicloud instead.
When asked what to expect from him and Jolicloud in the future, Krim signed off: "I want to insist on the fact that Jolicloud is not just another Linux distro. It is a whole vision of computing that we are rolling out step by step. We have only started our journey, but the rest of it will be really fun." µ
Sign up for INQbot – a weekly roundup of the best from the INQ