SweetLabs Offers an Option for PCs in Desperate Need of a Makeover

As a startup aiming to disrupt the personal computing continuum, San Diego’s SweetLabs represents an intriguing challenge to the Microsoft juggernaut.

With the new Windows 8 operating system scheduled for general availability next month, SweetLabs recently completed beta testing its Pokki technology for the desktop PC, saying Pokki now has more than 1 million monthly active users. The San Diego startup, with venture funding from Google, Intel, and others, introduced its Pokki app platform last summer.

“We know we have a long ways to go, with 1.3 billion PC users worldwide,” SweetLabs co-founder Chester Ng wrote to me by email yesterday. “But we’re excited by this early sign we may be onto something… in our crazy mission to reinvent the PC experience.”

Pokki is a combination app store and app launcher that lets users start programs directly from the Windows taskbar—even Web-based apps like Gmail that would normally require opening a browser. The milestone is technically 1 million monthly active users (MAUs)—people who have not only downloaded and installed Pokki, but who actually have been actively using Pokki’s collection of apps and games. Ng would not disclose a more relevant number, which is the growth rate of Pokki users. But he writes, “To give you an idea of what our recent trajectory has looked like, we’ve roughly doubled on average every month over the past six months.”

As I’ve explained before, Pokki is a platform that’s intended to make programs for Windows desktop PCs look and behave more like mobile apps. Hundreds of free apps and games are now available through the Pokki app store, giving PC users one-click access to Facebook, Gmail, Instagram (through an app called Instagrille), and Twitter (Tweeki). As part of its million-user announcement, SweetLabs says Angry Birds, Pinterest, and Pandora apps are also now available on via its Pokki platform.

The company says its Pokki platform also has undergone a major update that includes a new menu for discovering, organizing, and launching apps, along with an improved notification process for app updates.

In this era of smartphones and mobile computing, the aspect that makes this particularly ambitious is that SweetLabs sees a strategic opportunity to challenge Microsoft’s longtime dominance by offering an alternative to the standard Windows way of managing applications. That would have seemed like folly five or 10 years ago.

Yet in the Pokki blog, SweetLabs co-founder and CEO Darrius Thompson says the PC is in desperate need of a makeover. Microsoft itself is working on such a makeover in the form of Windows 8, which is designed for use across desktops, laptops, phones, and tablets. But Thompson says Pokki represents a better bridge from the traditional Windows desktop of the old world to the kind of modern app experience that Apple and Android have established.

“With Windows 8 around the corner, and Microsoft set to force a touch OS onto mainstream PC users (who really want to point, click, and type),” Thompson writes, “we feel it’s a more critical time than ever to prove that you can enjoy apps and a modern app experience without throwing out your monitor, keyboard, and mouse.”

PC users can download Pokki for free at Pokki.com, and the platform runs on top of Windows 8, 7, Vista, and XP. (The company says its next major product release will be a Pokki beta for Mac.) The big test, though, is coming this fall. If Pokki’s user base continues to double every month, SweetLabs will be closing in on 4 million monthly active users by late October, when Microsoft has scheduled the general release of the Windows 8 OS.

So the key question is whether SweetLabs will be able to sustain its exponential growth after Halloween. It seems likely that would depend more on whether PC users reject Windows 8 than how many embrace the Pokki platform. Still, it could prove to be a watershed for desktop users. In his SweetLabs’ blog, CEO Thompson points to a YouTube video, “How Real People Will Use Windows 8,” in which a befuddled, gray-haired user searches in vain for a Windows 8 start menu, saying, “We might be here all day if I’m trying to figure this out.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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