Desktop Linux as a Service: Will it Work?

Monday Aug 18th 2008 by Matt Hartley

Linux as a service has seen fair success on the enterprise desktop and tremendous success on the server front. Will Linux as a service could one day be ready for the home market?

Not all that long ago, you could not give the Linux desktop away – no matter how hard you tried. It was simply not at a stage in its development where the casual PC user felt comfortable without certain levels of GUI-based functionality.

Flash forward just a few years later and there has been no problem at all getting new users to try out the various Linux distributions. Despite this success, the one area that still seems to prevent desktop Linux from gaining a sharp edge over the proprietary competition is the lack of an idiot-proof desktop.

Now hear me out, as I am certainly not claiming that Windows or OS X come close to offering an idiot-proof experience this. Rather, I’m proposing that with a well-placed set of guarantees, users of select Linux desktop releases could discover a computing experience that balances stability with foolproof usability.

Basically, this is the missing "killer app" that some observers claim is currently missing from Linux today.

Enter the Zonbu experience.

The first time I tried the Zonbu mini, I was struck by its simplicity. As I logged into my Zonbu account, I was also logging into my remotely stored data access as well. This provided bulletproof data backup for my data while also providing access to remote support, should it be needed. (This remote support is key, as I’ll explain here in a moment.)

Consider all of the non-computer literate people in your life. Many of them are able to do the basics: e-mail, browse the Web, etc. But ask them to setup a POP account in their email client, clear their browser cache or even update passwords – most of these individuals will respond with a blank stare. Despite what Microsoft and Apple would like you to believe, neither OS provides a true handholding experience.

To be fair, I will say that Apple's OS X comes darn close. Particularly with its simple GUI and telephone support from the fantastic AppleCare Support team. But even with this extra assistance, users generally finding themselves needing someone to just "get things done" for them. And the last time I checked, most AppleCare plans were vastly underused, which translated to phone calls to yours truly for assistance instead.

Why? Because they "know me."

Getting back to Zonbu, this is an implementation of an operating system that is very close to what the casual computer user is looking for. Actually, on the software side, it’s basically a great fit. Despite this success though, Zonbu continues a shotgun approach to defining their market and attracting the right kind of customer.

Providing Linux as a service is not really all that difficult, once you kick loose all the nonsense from the Web 2.0 attempts to attract power users. All that companies like Zonbu need to do is completely rethink who their market is.

The right niche.

Zonbu and other similar ventures continue to suffer from a real identity crisis. These ventures work extremely hard to present themselves to a market who has repeatedly made it quite clear that outside of passing curiosity, they are not interested. This market includes small businesses and computer power users.

This Zonbu page is a clear example of what I’m talking about. While I am confident that Zonbu is comfortable with their existing sales numbers, I wonder if they realize that if they would simply drop this "second computer" concept, they would triple their sales with a little cooperating from your local PC repair shop. Let me explain.

Every PC repair shop out there deals with those individuals that simply cannot stop themselves from opening dangerous attachments or browsing to Web pages design to prompt for the installation of malware. These are same types of repair customers who are still using AOL or Internet Explorer 5.5. They read all of their mail in HTML format and generally have no idea what kind of malware is floating around on their computers collecting data to be passed on to who knows what kind of criminal.

Sadly, the PC repair industry's response to these problem user is to either force them to upgrade to Vista, which generally means a new PC, or simply continue removing the latest problems as they take place. To be put it bluntly, this a niche that has been screaming for help for a few years now.

Serious repair shops likely prefer to land service contracts for small to medium-sized business rather than "nickel and diming" with customers who are simply dealing with the need for repeated malware removal. Yet at the same time, I am sure that some of these repair shops hate to see these low-knowledge clients go elsewhere. The solution is clear – provide these "problem customers" with the option of a managed Linux box.

Often, existing customer PCs already meet the requirements for this, the only thing left is to lock it down and provide the person supporting the system with remote access when the customer needs help. Zonbu does this, but it’s relying on the end user still having an active Internet connection when help is needed. As ideal as this would be, there are still instances where it’s preferable to have someone local to reset a modem or router.

From niche to execution.

So we know that providing support services with Linux could do well if that support was local. Zonbu is not currently in a position to provide this. Perhaps this presents an opportunity then?

Let's imagine for a moment that an enterprising Linux user, who also works as a PC repair tech, gets the idea to provide their clients an alternative, using a specially pre-configured version of some popular Linux distribution.

Unlike other enterprise levels of Linux-as-a-service, which rely heavily on the support systems that works best for business environments, I see an opportunity for providing support to home users in a fixed environment. This fixed environment is both remote and local, depending on what the circumstances call for.

In order for desktop Linux to be sold as a service for the home user though, the selected distribution must meet the following requirements.

• The ability to install and remove applications. FOSS (Free and open source software) applications are fine, but locking it down to the point of being unable to try new FOSS applications might not be the best path. At the same time, it is important that the applications available are limited to stable, established applications.

• Self-updating distribution. Zonbu nails this head on, however it falls short as there have been problems with certain LCD monitors and the provided resolutions to choose from.

• Multiple user accounts. Again, Zonbu does not offer this despite it being a no-brainer for any family.

• Clearly defined list of compatible peripherals. This is an issue that plagues Linux in general. Not so much because of a lack of support, because in reality, peripheral support is pretty good. Rather, the fact that a user has to "research" what works and what does not. Clearly, this can be fixed by simply providing these peripherals from a simple online store. Let the company wanting to sell Linux as a service do the research, not some poor user simply looking to get a document printed.

As things stand now, nothing out there meets the list of requirements that I’ve listed above. While all installed Linux distributions do provide the ability to self-update, there is still an issue with select video cards and, in Zonbu's case, select LCD monitors.

Despite my frustrations with Zonbu's approach, they remain the closest thing to meeting the requirements I outlined above. Perhaps if Zonbu and other similar companies working to sell Linux as a service will take my suggestions to heart, and so put themselves in a much stronger position for a much larger customer base.

In the meantime, we are left to ponder the outcome of various companies out there looking to provide Linux as a service to their customers. Linux as a service has been met with fair success on the enterprise desktop front and tremendous success on the server front. So doesn’t it stand to reason that perhaps Linux as a service could one day be ready for the home market as well?

It may not be easy and there is a lot of work to be done, but I believe that here soon, home adoption in this realm will happen. We just need to make sure that the basics are covered with regard to peripheral support in addition providing local techs for those moments where remote support is not a viable option.

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