Linux for Consumers

by havoc

For years now I’ve complained about the term “desktop” – an evil word
that blinds us to more interesting opportunities to use free software
in consumer-facing products.

Look at all the recent examples.

Built on GNOME technology, we’ve had Maemo from Nokia and OpenMoko for a while, and
One Laptop Per Child.

More recently, we have the Kindle and
Android.

Then no less than three consumer PC-like devices, running an
Internet-centric flavor of Linux; Zonbu, Everex gPC, and Asus Eee PC.

Zonbu emphasizes “Hassle-free. Guaranteed.” because it backs up all
your data to the Internet for $12.95 per month. The OS is completely
stateless, i.e. doesn’t keep anything locally that isn’t backed up.

gPC asks you to “Imagine an OS with easy access to the best Web
2.0 can offer” and shamelessly encourages you to think the “g” means
Google as best they can without getting sued… “We recommend Google
for just about everything… Gmail, Gtalk, Calendar, Maps, Docs and
Spreadsheets, and more. We’d like to welcome you to the idea that
Google already is your ‘operating system.'”

According to its press release, Eee PC “is focused on providing users
with the most comprehensive Internet applications based on three Es:
Easy to learn, work play; Excellent Internet experience and Excellent
on-the-Go.”

Compare to the concept for Online Desktop
proposed at GUADEC (incidentally before any of these three had come
out, or at least before I knew about them):

The perfect window to the Internet: integrated with all your favorite
online apps, secure and virus-free, simple to set up and zero­
maintenance thereafter.

There’s a real problem with Zonbu, gPC, and Eee PC: they are
all running one-off, hacked-up software that’s specific to the
hardware. This can’t last. If this type of thing catches on,
eventually there’s significant consumer benefit if the software is
“hardware independent” and there’s a relatively stable platform used
by as many people as possible. Consumers benefit from using a platform
lots of other people are using. It’s also helpful, of course, if
there’s a thriving, upstream open source community behind the platform.

The opportunity for a project like GNOME is to ignore
proprietary, legacy desktop operating systems and focus on huge,
unique advantages:

  • Stateless / zero-maintenance
  • Works with the Internet – all the apps people are interested in –
    not locked-in to Windows Live
  • Runs well on small, low-power hardware that is green and
    portable
  • Common platform and data, spanning mobile and home devices

It’s pure idiocy to chip away at matching Windows or Mac
feature-for-feature, hoping to get from 90% of the feature matrix to
95%, wishfully thinking that will matter. “Linux will be ready for the
desktop when these 5 pet peeves are fixed” magazine articles drive me
nuts, because they assume such a terrible
slug-out-the-feature-matrix
strategy. Letting the incumbent define the playing field is suicide.

The right approach for the free software community is to offer a
different product, and what’s changed in the last few months
is that no less than three companies have shipped first rough cuts at
what I’d consider the open source appliance of the future. While at the same
time, One Laptop Per Child shipped an even more innovative PC to kids
around the world, Nokia continued to ship the Maemo mobile
environment, and Google piled on with its own open source mobile
platform. There’s a lot happening.

If I had magic fiat power over GNOME or Fedora or Ubuntu or whatever,
these are the opportunities I’d be interested in.

There’s nothing really new here; after all, the general idea
is not too far from what I assume Eazel had in
mind. Before that, there was the i-Opener (IMO a good
product, but Netpliance messed up the business aspect by selling at a
loss without locking people in to a contract).

The idea is old but today’s world is new: increasing use of
broadband, decreasing hardware costs, more capable web-based apps,
better mobile devices, and open source software improvements have made
open source client appliances more timely and realistic today than
they were a few years ago.

It will be interesting to see which of these efforts succeed, and
which companies and projects end up at the center of gravity. I feel
very confident in predicting, however, that if a free
software OS gets in front of a substantial number of consumers, it
will be in the form of these new and different products, not
in the form of a strictly traditional desktop operating system.

(This post was originally found at http://log.ometer.com/2007-11.html#21)

My Twitter account is @havocp.
Interested in becoming a better software developer? Sign up for my email list and I'll let you know when I write something new.
Name
Email *