Sunday, August 31, 2008

The "Appliancising" of Free Software

Ever since I watched the fledgling Free Software movement take hold a few years ago in Thailand, I've thought that the current trend of what I'll call "appliancising" was the natural end game for Free Software (and really all OSes in general).

There's an interesting article up at Computerworld about how Red Hat and Suse got cut out of a huge deal in Germany. Essentially, a German company ran into some problems with Suse that soured the deal, so decided to move to another platform. While the obvious competitor was Red Hat, the company didn't need a full Red Hat contract, so they decided to go with CentOS, an untrademarked version of Red Hat ES.

HP, the company's hardware vendor, officially supports Red Hat, so HP is also supporting CentOS with extra management applications for the Munich-based company.

I find the whole story quite interesting and maybe telling about where we'll be in a few years.

The from Asus uses Xandros, but not a stock Xandros. Asus contracted Xandros to create a special (maybe we'll call it "branded") version specially for the eeePC. Asus is using this as a selling point. Asus easily could have developed their own version, but they didn't. Why is that? Asus' Splashtop, now available on virtually every motherboard, is making waves the way offering never could, but Asus, a Taiwanese company got that technology from DeviceVM in Silicon Valley.

So, before I go into some more examples and a prediction or two, I want to take a step back in time, to when the grass was greener and life was simpler ... my childhood. Back then (the 70's and early 80's), computers were pretty simple. There was no talk of an operating system choice because there really was no choice. Unix vendors sold the hardware and the software as a unit. They were intimately tied to each other. The home systems were the same. I'm not sure I can call the built-in BASIC interpreter for my Model I and "operating system," but that's really what it was, and there was no way around it for a long time. Apples didn't have choice, either. Things haven't changed on that side.

Back to the present, when Mac OS X is the gold standard in the press. The hardware is theirs. The OS is theirs. Most of the apps are theirs, and they have nice little tie-ins like the iPhone and the iPod and the iTunes store. Whew. That's a lot of "i"s. People who like Macs love them. Asus runs the eeePC the same way, and would be smart to have an eeePC store or at least a line of peripherals and add-on software just like Apple. Your NAS (QNAP NAS pictured above) now comes with a customized Linux or maybe FreeNAS if the manufacturer is pushing to market fast. It works. There are no hassles. It's not really upgradable, anyway, so why should the average user need to think of it as anything but an appliance?

(pictured right) is a home internet server allowing a user to (from the website):
  • Create a local area network of up to four PCs (more if you add an external switch or wireless access point)
  • Share one Internet connection for the whole network
  • Back up files to and share them from Square One’s networked hard drive
  • Connect a USB printer to Square One and print from any PC
  • Run a full-featured web site, web forum, or blog without paying expensive hosting or colocation fees
This is a pretty attractive set of features, and the operating system appears to be a custom Linux distribution. Does the purchaser care? No. Does the web site even mention Linux? No.

How about the Zonbu (left)? It's a desktop appliance which does automatic upgrades and backups to the Zonbu server. Its selling point is "hassle-free computing." With everything Zonbu does, it's trying to remove headaches from desktop computing. The user just needs to turn the thing on and use it. It's a real appliance. Zonbu uses a tweaked Gentoo installation (is there any other kind?). The system gets great reviews and is compared to a Mac though costing only US$99 US$299. So far, though, uptake is really slow. I'd buy one if I lived in the U.S. Note: As pointed out below, Zonbu appears to have changed their pricing model and strategy. They now sell the computers, support, and OS separately. This move makes them much less interesting.

Then there are the phones. Just the way the iPhone is a cut-down version of OS X, the Android (prototype is pictured to the right) and OpenMoko phones are Linux. Who really cares, though, except gear heads? The average guy just thinks that the phone looks good and has cool functions for a reasonable price. Phones always have been appliances, though, right.? There's no real movement happening except to multi-touch displays and desktop-like functionality. Wait. I guess that is pretty important. You desktop in your hand. Yeah. A desktop appliance.

I promised a prediction or two. First, this looks bleak for Red Hat and Suse, right? I mean, when this Munich-based company decided to standardize on a new version of a Linux operating system, they chose CentOS, which means Red Hat did the development and didn't get any of the money. You know ... one of those situations that brings up the question "How do you make any money?"

I don't think it's so bad, though. Look at Asus. They are paying Xandros and DeviceVM, even though they could have logically done something in house. It only took Canonical a couple of months to push out the Ubuntu netbook remix, you know. Asus is a hardware company, though, and I'm pretty sure they don't want to get into software beyond developing drivers and tweaking a BIOS (which they purchase, too). If fact, I'd be willing to bet they don't really want to do drivers or the BIOS, either.

Five years from now, we'll have "the end of the desktop," which has been predicted for years now. It won't really be dead, but phones, netbooks, and Zonbu-like appliances will take a good share of it. I doubt Zonbu will be on your desk, because the first to market rarely is the one to make a big splash. Linux vendors will continue to make ends meet (but not become uber-wealthy) by supplying the expertise to "appliancise" their distributions for these hardware manufacturers, just as continue to make money. The support number for your Ubuntu netbook will probably actually be routed to a Canonical help desk where they'll be sure to answer the phone with your supplier's name instead of their own. Users will purchase online updates and add-ons, probably caring little about the Free nature of the software. Even hardware houses which try to do their own thing in-house will contribute back upstream just to keep future costs down.

Techies, of course, will continue to tear the appliances apart, mod them, and generally use them in ways they weren't designed for.


  1. AnonymousAugust 31, 2008 11:40 PM

    Zonbu is $299, not $99 -- at that price, I was going to go buy one!

  2. September 1, 2008 6:16 AM

    They must have just changed their pricing because it was $99 with a two-year contract before when I was doing my research for the post. They appear to have forgone the whole required support package route and now sell the computers, the OS, and the support separately.

    Thanks for pointing that out!


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