The cost of maintaining IT in the business world is not cheap, and sometimes can even be astronomical. Large companies with in-house IT staff must hire specialized employees, and spend large portions of their budget on computer maintenance. There are updates, downloads, upgrades, IT staff overtime and perhaps even company downtime. Small and mid-sized businesses that outsource these services can save some money, but still can spend a big chunk of the company budget getting the job done.

But there may be a solution already available, in fact one that's been around for ages and whose time has finally come.

“Webtops make absolute sense for a … [small or mid-sized business] that's looking for an easy and inexpensive way to maintain its system and afford to hire more workers,” says Chris Pirillo, podcast tech guru and former host of TechTV program Call for Help. “It's less of a power drain, and a much lower cost in IT expenses for multiple people.”

What a webtop is

The webtop -- sometimes less accurately called a WebOS, or Web operating system -- represents a return to the old client/server model of mainframe computing. The term "webtop" -- short for web desktop -- was coined as early as 1996 to characterize the migration of desktop applications to the browser. Webtops provide an environment similar to that of Windows, Mac, or a similar graphical user interface on Unix and Linux systems. They are virtual desktops running in a Web browser. In a webtop, the applications, data, files, configuration, settings, and access privileges reside remotely over the network. Much of the computing takes place remotely. The browser is primarily the window used to access the remote desktop software.

To be called a webtop, it must have four things:

  • Able to be launched automatically from a browser (i.e., no manual download, installation, or update process on local machine).
  • Tight integrated between the user's native browser and all the Webtop applications.
  • Communicate seamlessly with a central server using HTTP.
  • Use a graphic user interface (Windows-like environment).

Back in 2000, Gartner Research released a prediction that “Webtops will become mainstream by 2002, and users will be free from relying on laptops to access the applications and information they need.” While that hasn't come true, what's held it back is not any lack of technology, but just the lack of Internet speed and computing power to manage this long-distance functionality. The world of Web 2.0 is changing that deficiency, and some companies are paying attention.

Businesses revising desktop strategies

Many large companies, including DaimlerChrysler, Sabre, BMW, Amadeus, and Deutsche Bank, are revising some of their desktop strategies to take advantage of webtops. And small and mid-sized businesses can likewise benefit. In contrast to the usual IT money pit, companies offering webtops handle the majority of maintenance remotely with limited client interaction required, with the company left to handle only a fraction of the costs. This distribution of computing power can not only dramatically decrease IT costs, but can also significantly improve a team's performance through integrated data sharing and closer communications within the webtop platform.

The webtop is an inevitability in this age of Web 2.0. With the growth in sheer numbers of Web-based applications, combined with the ubiquity of high speed Internet the capability for a completely portable operating system has arrived. The kind of functionalities you'll find in a webtop includes file hosting, applications like word processor, spreadsheet, graphics and video programs, games, e-mail and contact management, desktop widgets, and almost anything you’d expect from the operating system existing on your desktop.

While the general opinions of webtop reviewers make it sound like everyone should embrace the concept, not everyone sings their praises. There's been plenty of resistance to the use of webtops -- a large portion of the industry of software makers, for instance. The use of remote shared software applications -- much of it open source -- means far less commercial software will need to be installed on each workstation, meaning fewer software licenses sold.

“If the webtop became a reality, Microsoft has the most to lose,” says Gene Phifer, managing vice president and analyst at Gartner, “because right now Microsoft owns the eyeballs of corporate Earth.”

A work in progress

Keep in mind webtops are still a work in progress, and as you'll see when you test them, they are still finding the occasional bug to squash. Response lag time is still an issue at times, for one thing. Coming advances in new technologies, like the soon-to-be-released Adobe Flash 10 (currently in beta), may increase their functionality and speed the response time, but only time will tell.

“I've tried several of them over the years,” said Pirillo, “and haven't found any that are quite ready to handle the business world -- yet. It may be a few years before webtops will be considered a business tool. But I have no doubt that it's coming.”

Webtops are a major strategic shift for many small businesses, especially those who have resisted outsourcing any IT services. Given the advances in reliability, security, and redundant backup protection that hosted services provide, however, it's much more cost effective to focus on your core business than to dedicate resources to IT. Once webtops achieve a standardized level of functionality, and all of a company's applications, data, and e-mails can be brought to individual users with lightning speed through any mainstream browser from a secure, managed data center, then the change will come.

A webtop might be useful for your company needs, but before you spend a cent, run a few tests to see if the concept fits your business model.

SIDEBAR: Webtops to Get You Started

This Mashable page also has a much more comprehensive list of 45 webtops. Here's a short list of a few of the better webtops to look consider:

  • Glide -- Has full suite of usual desktop applications, including word processing, spreadsheets, presentation, etc. Also handles video, audio, and digital pics, with graphics editing built in as well. Includes integration with and support for almost any cell phone or handheld, including BlackBerry, Palm, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and iPhone. Looks and works great on the iPod Touch as well. Just point your handheld or cell phone browser at and you'll see what I mean. Offers 5 GB storage free, 15 GB is 4.95/mo. Also has a kids' version,
  • (Global Hosted Operating SysTem) -- As their slogan says, “ provides a free Web-based Virtual Computer to every human being.” In alpha testing so far, but nice set up. Won a number of awards, including a Red Herring 100 Europe award. First joint Palestinian-Israeli technology start-up, operates in the Palestinian territories. Integrates with Zoho for office software. Well thought out, one to watch.
  • Cloudo -- Founded in 2006 in Stockholm, the company is privately held. Offers standard fare in terms of a webtop, including file hosting, virtual desktop widgets, applications, e-mail and contact management, and a full suite of programs you’d expect from a regular desktop OS. Visually appealing standard layout, but Cloudo offers a big range of themes, and can even mimic other operating systems including various flavors of Windows, Mac, and Linux so you can feel right at home. Currently in private developer alpha as of February 2008, Cloudo is an Ajax based virtual desktop application.
  • Desktoptwo -- Based in Mexico, built and hosted by Desktoptwo includes 1GB of free space, and includes a fully-featured suite, converted into a Java applet. Also offers RSS reader, mp3 player, IM, blog, mail and more.