By Harry McCracken | Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 8:38 am
Four years ago, I used my PC World blog to write about Glide, a “Web OS” that I said might be the most ambitious new service of 2005. Glide was trying to move much of a typical user’s computing experience from the PC to the cloud–even though the idea was so new at the time that almost nobody was talking about cloud computing yet. I said that the service was promising, but rough around the edges and frequently confusing. While Glide hasn’t ever become one of the Web’s household names, it’s continued on, adding gazillions of new features and repeatedly reworking its user interface. So I’m overdue for another look.
Glide calls itself a “portable and transparent Web operating system,” although purists might maintain that it’s more of a Web suite–an uncommonly rich one. Its features include:
And a number of other features, too–plus apps that bring its social-networking features to BlackBerry (brand new) and Android. (There isn’t an iPhone client, but Glide’s mobile site squeezes down much of its functionality into smartphone-friendly form.) You also get 20GB of free online storage, plus a software client that can use this space to sync multiple PCs and Macs, roughly approximating something like SugarSync–except with far more free storage. There are extensions for Firefox and Chrome that put a Glide toolbar in your browser–and the company is in the process of rolling out a toolbar for Internet Explorer.
The idea is that you can use Glide on any or all of the computers in your life (including your smartphone), using it to put a full complement of tools at your fingertips and to make your documents, photos, and other media available anywhere and everywhere. (The service builds in file-format conversion technology that translates documents and media on the fly as needed)
On the Web, the service offers four different environments, including a desktop, a file manager, a portal, and a new search-centric interface that lets you find Web pages, then grab them for editing in the Glide word processor.
Wait, I’m not finished: it also has a variant designed to manage health records, and one for educational institutions, and one for kids. And Transmedia, Glide’s creator, is working on a version that can be booted without an underlying operating system, turning it into a Chrome OS competitor.
Overall, the service is as wildly ambitious as anything I can think of on the Web. If Google and Microsoft merged tomorrow and announced that they were trying to build what Glide is trying to build, you’d wonder if they were biting off a bigger technological challenge than they could easily digest.
Glide’s goals are laudable. Its scope is comprehensive. It’s full of interesting touches, many of which perform briskly given that everything’s running in the cloud. (The service was originally written in Flash, but much of it is now implemented in the snappier AJAX and other Web standards.)
Unfortunately, Glide’s execution still fails to live up to its ambition. It no longer has the idiosyncratic pie-based interface the original version sported, but there’s very little consistency from one area of the service to another–each of its multitude of apps has its own way of doing things, and its own philosophy about where tools should live. The four environments feel like different worlds rather than parts of an integrated whole. Clicking on things tends to open up new browser windows hosted at different domains, such as GlideSociety.com, GlideLife.com, and GlideFree.com.
In short, Glide is disjointed. It’s also buggy in spots–or at least I ran into oddities like the syncing software telling me it couldn’t find its database, then proceeding to work just fine, and my word-processing text sometimes disappearing when I attempted to change the font size. Transmedia’s CEO, Donald Leka, told me that my troubles with the service were atypical.
In other cases, I couldn’t quite tell if Glide was misbehaving, or if I simply didn’t understand what a feature or application was designed to do. The documentation is in the form of a couple of PDFs, but the service really would benefit hugely from a sweeping context-sensitive help system.
Like I say, I continue to admire the vision behind the service. A Glide that nailed every aspect of what it’s attempting to do would be a thing of wonder. But I think the way for Glide to fulfill that vision isn’t to keep adding more stuff–it’s to spend the next year or so making all the stuff it’s got more comprehensible and consistent, and less quirky.
Here are a few more screen shots to give you a sense of Glide’s flavor–both how much it does, and how very different it looks from app to app.