StartForce's Webtop for the Workplace

Services that try to recreate the desktop experience within the browser (so-called “webtops” or “Web OSs”) often lead to head scratching. If you’re already running a real operating system, what’s the point of emulating one with Flash or Ajax?

Sure, there are benefits to running all of your personal computing in the cloud: files can be shared more easily, pseudo-desktop software can be updated automatically, and files won’t be lost if your hardware melts down. Perhaps most significantly, you can use your “computer” even when not at your computer.

But those advantages are often insufficient in the face of decreased responsiveness, total lockout when you can’t find a hotspot, and a dearth of applications that are good enough to replace the ones you’ve already learned.

So it’s a bit of fresh air to hear about StartForce, a webtop with modest short-term ambitions. Unlike other consumer-focused offerings such as Jooce, Goowy (acquired by AOL) and, StartForce is marketing itself toward enterprises that care about both remote connectivity and data security – two goals that often come into conflict.

Anyone can sign up and start using StartForce by going to its website (works best in Firefox 3). The real product, however, consists of an enterprise version for corporations that pay for support on a per-seat, usage basis. Since the enterprise version debuted last month, four companies have signed up with a total of about 1,000 seats.

The idea is that corporations can use StartForce (as a cheap alternative to solutions like VPN) to provide their employees with access to sensitive data while on the road. File servers, directories and other intranet resources can be made accessible and modifiable through StartForce. But IT managers can choose to restrict or prohibit downloads, thereby preventing mischief while ensuring access to these critical assets from any browser-enabled device. StartForce is powered by Ajax, so not even the Flash plugin is needed.

While StartForce has built out its own suite of applications for documents, music, instant messaging and more, it has also developed an API for incorporating 3rd-party web services like Zoho and EditGrid. And somewhere down the line, this API will be made publicly available so that anyone can integrate their apps into StartForce (such as Picnik for image editing), thereby preventing it from becoming a walled garden.

StartForce has raised $1 million from Japanese investors Mitsui Ventures and NGI Capital. It is currently looking to raise another round from American investors.

Also see Xcerion, an impressive WebOS out of Sweden with a particular disposition toward developers.