In the next release of KDE, you will also be able to download remote widgets on to your desktop, such as a train schedule when you are in the station -- at least, if you can find a station that also happens to be running KDE. If any of these interactions seem unwise to you, you can limit your use of them or avoid them altogether. If you are a developer, you can investigate the source code and determine for yourself that these features do not contain any back doors or digital restriction management tools. You not only have control, but you can choose your level of trust, and take whatever precautions you think are necessary, even avoiding such features altogether.
What matters is that, with the expanded desktop, you decide for yourself what balance between convenience and security you can live with. That factor places the expanded desktop squarely within the tradition of FOSS in a way that most online applications are not.
Of course, things are not quite so black and white. A minority of online applications use the Affero GNU General Public License, which requires that providers of online applications must make their source code available. A few, such as Clipperz, also encourage users to encrypt their files to guarantee their privacy.
But these are not general practice. According to the latest figures from Black Duck, only 227 applications use the Affero license today. If anything, the providers of online applications shy away from the Affero license. Google, for instance, does not allow projects that use its online repositories to license their work under the Affero license.
The reason given is that Google is trying to prevent the proliferation of licenses. However, since no other license has been singled out, what Google appears to object to is a license that would bring online applications under the usual provisions of FOSS.
The truth is, online applications are nothing more than the latest incarnation of proprietary software. The resemblance is hidden because you can use most online applications without paying anything, just as with FOSS. But FOSS is about user control, not about cost, and online applications are typically a way to avoid user control. They are a reaction to FOSS, not an acceptance of it.
The Affero license can redirect online applications, and make them more FOSS-friendly. Unfortunately, though, the effort required to spread the use of the Affero license is immense, and almost as slow as the initial efforts to spread FOSS.
My concern is that we do not have the time to rely on the Affero license to change the nature of online applications. While FOSS advocates continue to suggest the Affero license's use, online applications continue to gain in popularity, with very little critical analysis. If anything, commentators accept them as more or less inevitable. Matt Assay, for example, sees Google Chrome, with its emphasis on online-apps as likely to provide a major shift away from the traditional desktop.
And who knows? Based on what has happened so far, he might be right.
The expanded desktop is not entirely ideal. In particular, it could open too many new doors to malware attacks. But as a design philosophy, it has the advantage of permitting interaction with online resources while remaining compatible with FOSS goals. These advantages make it an alternative to online apps -- an alternative that free software may desperately need.