Hey YouOS!

Steve Hamm

Where do people get the nerve to do things like this? YouOS, a four-person startup in Silicon Valley, has just debuted a beta of their technology, which they call a “Web operating system” and which they conceive as the online counterpart to Microsoft’s Windows. I guess it’s the “better mousetrap” impulse. These guys aren’t crazy. They’re not out to get rich quick. They’re just four fun-loving techies who like to invent stuff and think they have come up with a better way to do things on the Web. “People will use it when they want to collaborate or they want to access data when they’re away from their computer. It’s about being able to access from anywhere and share with anyone,” says Jeff Mellen, the company’s executive vice-president.

The practical details: YouOS runs on a handful of servers in San Francisco and can be accessed by anybody through a Web browser at www.youos.com. Consumers who register for free can use a host of simple applications for everything from writing a letter and scheduling their life to managing their e-mail accounts. They can manage all of their Web services and files in one place, share files through a simple buddy list, and add applications written by themselves or their friends. Anybody with the skills and will can write programs on YouOS using Javascript, a simple programming language, plus all sorts of other equally free programming tools.

YouOs obviously isn’t a conventional operating system, which mediates between the chips that power a computer and the software applications. But it has enough similarities to make the metaphor apt. It’s a technology platform that applications can be built upon, and it manages networking functions and other plumbing for the applications. It brings many aspects of the desktop operating system into the Web browser. Also, in a sense,, YouOS liberates software from hardware. “It’s a profound idea in some respects,” says Mellen.

The YouOS story is exceedingly cute. The founders are four friends who used to work at Oracle Corp., the Silicon Valley database software powerhouse. They met each other as members of Uncle Sam’s Army, one of Oracle's intra-company basketball teams. In addition to Mellen, an MIT grad, nicknamed “uiguy,” they including Joe “mrwong” Wong, also of MIT, the treasurer; Sam “unclesam” Hsiung, of Caltech, the secretary; and Srini “burritoninga” Panguluri, of Stanford, the president.

I’m thinking that Panguluri got to be president as a reward for thinking up the idea for the company. In his picture on the Web site, he looks like a sleeping baby.

The boys don’t have an office. They work out of their homes. They have a tiny bit of angel capital, which they raised from Y Combinator, the Web 2.0 incubator, and a few individuals. “Everybody talks about how Google is building the Web operating system, but these guys have done it,” says Paul Graham, one of the principals in Y Combinator. The four aren't exactly burning through the money. They keep expenses low. Their servers and other gear cost less than $10,000. Their software: open source.

Is this really a company? Does it have a chance in hell of accomplishing anything of significance? Beats me. All I know is the founders are fired up, they’re working hard, they’re having fun, and YouOS seems really practical and useful. So far, since the site launched on March 14, (first notice on the Web at digg) 5,000 people have registered and 27,000 people have logged on in one mode or another. So, I guess you could say four guys have created something on the scale of small town in Missouri. Their enthusiasm, luck, and network effects will determine the rest. Says Mellen: “We think of this as an experiment. Hopefully, it’s an experiment that will work out.”