Hewlett-Packard's recent presentation of its plans to place webOS at the heart of a broad cloud strategy highlighted a route that Microsoft, Google and Amazon will also take, in their different ways.
Essential to HP's desire to offer an end-to-end cloud platform – giving it control of a vast range of web apps and devices – is a new-style operating system that can be embedded in each of those end points. This is not a traditional OS: it does not need to participate in the OS wars and can live alongside other systems. It is stripped-down in function and footprint and largely based on the browser.
The most famous example of this approach is Google's upcoming Chrome OS, which will also be targeted at end-to-end cloud activities, not yet another device platform (and so will live happily alongside Android and even Windows).
But Microsoft has its own similar plan in the wings, in the shape of the ServiceOS project, a cloud platform that will debut after Windows 8 (which will unify all the various Windows flavours, including mobile) but will certainly not be an alternative to it. And not to be outdone, it seems that Motorola and even China's Baidu may have similar plans.
Microsoft researchers unveiled some details of the ServiceOS project last summer, referring to it as a "multi-principal OS-based browser" for controlling web services and devices. Now, as tracked with insight by ZDnet's Mary-Jo Foley, ServiceOS is evolving more rapidly. A new abstract posted by lead researcher Helen Wang explains that ServiceOS supports the SaaS (software as a service) approach, also a heavy focus for HP.
Using the platform, a "master copy of a user's applications resides in the cloud and cached on end devices", whether these run Windows Phone, post-Windows 8 or browser. The abstract shows how rich web content, such as a YouTube video, could be embedded in a traditional Word application without compromising security, bringing together the old Microsoft and the new web worlds under one umbrella that is still controlled by the Windows giant.
ServiceOS, previously codenamed Gazelle, has a larger OS layer than Google's full-browser Chrome OS platform. The browser itself is isolated from this OS layer for greater security and becomes the key system for access to web services.
In an earlier outline, Wang and co-researcher Alex Moschuk wrote: "Existing browsers rely on resource access control and sharing mechanisms built into traditional OSs. Unfortunately, such mechanisms are ill-suited for many complex web services, such as those embedding mash-ups of other web services."
ServiceOS, then, builds resource-sharing and access control into the heart of the browser, creating a less unwieldy OS. ServiceOS manages many resources from the processor and memory to devices like cameras and network bandwidth.
As usual with Microsoft projects, ServiceOS is fascinating and potentially wide-ranging in its impact, but it certainly won't be ahead of the market in timescales. HP has managed to reinvent webOS – from device OS to cloud platform – sufficiently nimbly that the new strategy will have some commercial fruits next year.
Similarly, Chrome OS is available, though for now it is behaving like a conventional client OS on netbooks and some prototype "cloudbook" products. Like HP, Google is likely to start showing off its system working as a full cloud offering from 2012.
ServiceOS has very uncertain commercial timelines but the best bet would be launch after Windows 8, probably in 2013. Admittedly it will not have to go through the chrysalis phase of acting like a device OS, but will head straight to end-to-end web services, but this is still a long wait.