ReadWriteWeb has a report on Jolicloud, a cloud-based spinoff of Ubuntu with a user interface based on Chromium (the development version of the Google Chrome browser) and HTML5. This zippy little Linux OS is mainly meant for running on Intel-based netbooks and tablets, but today dropped an update that will make it usable on computers as much as ten years old. While this may not be directly related to e-books, anything that makes older hardware more usable means it could be more easily used for educational purposes by the needy—purposes such as reading e-books.
I’ve been playing with Jolicloud as a dual-boot option on my laptop for the last couple of weeks and have found it to be worthy for doing most of the things I need to do, save gaming. It comes with the Ibis Reader built in and launchable from its desktop, and FBReader can of course be installed from the console as it can from any flavor of Linux.
The great things about Jolicloud are the zippy boot speed—I haven’t timed it, but I’m certain I go from off to a login prompt in well under thirty seconds on my laptop—and the simplicity. I think this could very well be the most user-friendly version of Linux yet. The desktop launcher user interface is a simple and familiar two rows of square icons—when I talked a friend into installing it on his own computer, his first question was, “Why is there an iPhone on my PC?” But at the same time, since console access is just an Alt + F1 keystroke away, it has all the power of any version of Linux available to power users at a moment’s notice.
The OS has a very simple method for installing new applications; you just go to the top of the page and type the name into the search box and choose to search Jolicloud, and there they are, or you can click one of the icons in the upper left and browse the catalog. Many of these are “web apps”—essentially, shortcuts that open a dedicated, interfaceless session of the Chromium browser on a given webpage such as Facebook, Meebo, Pandora, Twitter, Seesmic, etc. Others are normal Linux apps that launch in their own windows.
By and large, I like this system. There are some web apps, such as Gmail, that I prefer to keep running in a tab of Chromium, but there’s nothing stopping me from doing that. And others, like Meebo or Pandora, it makes sense to keep in their own, always-visible panes.
There are a couple of minor annoyances about it, however. If an app isn’t in Joli’s catalog, it must be installed from the console, with apt-get (or in some cases an independent binary package or even by compiling it oneself)—something that may be beyond many Linux newbies. And if it is installed that way, there is no way to add a shortcut for it to the desktop launcher—it must be launched from the “Accessories” section of Joli’s user menu, or a local applications subfolder in a subfolder on the launcher. (Or from a console or an Alt + F2 command prompt.)
Another minor problem is that some of the function keys are not intuitive. The Windows “start” button on the keyboard serves as hide/reveal all, and the “context menu” button to the right of the space bar (which brings up the right-click menu in Windows) is Joli’s equivalent of a “start” menu. Unlike with Windows, there is nothing to click on the screen to get either one of those functions; they must be accessed from the keyboard. I actually had to ask on the support forums to find out how to do it. (I’m not sure how tablets running Joli are supposed to access this menu.)
One of the features of Jolicloud is that it’s supposed to synchronize multiple computers or devices running the OS, so that your desktops look the same and you have the same apps installed on each one. You can even access the web apps on your desktop via the web (though they essentially come off as shortcuts that open in new tabs that way). I’ve only tried the OS on one device at a time so far, so I’m not entirely sure how well that works.
Like many modern Linux distros, Jolicloud can install itself into a directory within a Windows PC and boot that way, taking only a minimal hit to overall performance. This means that practically anybody could try it out on his PC simply by downloading a program and running it, at no more risk to his current Windows installation than any other program. It’s a great way to get your feet wet in Linux, and experience the additional speed and stability available to modern and antique hardware alike when you don’t have to deal with Windows cruft.
Some may wonder what the difference is between Jolicloud and another Chrome-based netbook OS, Google’s ChromeOS. Though I have not used ChromeOS myself, as I understand it Jolicloud is essentially a standard Linux distro with cloud capabilities added on, meaning that it is as useful off-line as Ubuntu or any other such Linux—but ChromeOS, on the other hand, is optimized for being connected to the Internet at all times, and is much less useful when no Internet access can be had.