Behind the Low-End Linux Box that Sold Out at Wal-Mart

Dave Liu of gOS and the $199 gPC.

In June 1996, PC Week ran a piece titled “Andreessen Eyes Internet OS”. Marc Andreessen was famously the prime author of the Mosaic and Netscape browsers, and a cofounder of Netscape as well. The money quote from that piece was, “The only difference technically between Netscape's Navigator browser and a traditional operating system is that Navigator will not include device drivers.”

Needless to say, this and other remarks along the same lines did not please Microsoft. A great deal of history followed, including the “browser wars”, the sale of Netscape to AOL, the federal lawsuit against Microsoft, the dot-com crash, Y2K and much more. Forgotten in the shuffle was Marc's original ambition, which was to establish the browser as a platform, and in the process, to commoditize operating systems to the “bags of device drivers” they had long been called.

Now it's 2008, and Google is busy treating the browser as a platform and is generally agnostic toward operating systems. (Its own services are mostly deployed on Linux-based systems, but its applications are either browser-based or made to run on multiple platforms. Google Earth is the ideal example. Picasa is not.)

But, the browser is mostly where Google likes to run user-side apps as Web services. In fact, Google now provides most or all of your basic desktop application suite—mail, office (documents, spreadsheets, presentations), calendar and instant messaging—inside your browser. It's up to the user which bag of device drivers runs between browser and iron. May the best bag win.

Thus, it was perhaps inevitable that somebody would come along and make a bare-bones—or bare-browser—box that's optimized to run Google's browser-based apps on the best-commoditized platform, fulfilling the Andreessen Prophesy.

That somebody is Dave Liu, the 21-year-old CEO of Good OS LLC. The company's main product is gOS, an Ubuntu-based distro tweaked to run Web apps as if they were desktop ones. gOS might have been Yet Another Linux Distro had it not made news last November when the $199 Everex gPC, running gOS, sold out in two days at WalMart.com.

Though the price is low-end, the gPC doesn't hurt for features. Here are the hardware specs, according to Everex: “1.5GHz, VIA C7-D Processor, 512MB DDRII 533MHz, SDRAM, 80GB HD Drive, DVD-ROM/CD-RW Optical Drive, VIA UniChrome Pro IGP Graphics, Realtek 6-Channel Audio, (1) 10/100 Ethernet Port, (1) DB 15-Pin VGA Port, (6) USB 2.0 Ports, (1) RJ-11 Port, (1) Headphone/Line-Out Port, (2) Microphone/Line-In Ports, (1) Serial Port, (1) Parallel Port, (1) Keyboard, (1) Mouse, (1) Set of Amplified Stereo Speakers”.

Could this be the long-awaited starting point for Linux in the mass market? We thought it would be fun to catch up with Dave Liu in the midst of the buzz that followed the news. Here's the dialogue that followed.

Doc: So, what possessed you to create yet another Linux distribution?

DL: I'm actually fairly new to open source. Most of my work and studies at UCLA had been centered on Web 2.0. I saw a lot of great Web 2.0 applications that weren't taken seriously. You had to be the type of person to read TechCrunch, Mashable or other Web 2.0 blogs just to know they existed. Like open source, I felt we were developing Web 2.0 just for each other and not for the mainstream.

When I met the Enlightenment and open-source folks, I realized how we needed to work together. Together, I envisioned taking Linux and Web 2.0 mainstream. With Google backing both of these communities, I felt the best thing to do was to create a Linux distribution that made it easy for people to access Google and other Web 2.0 applications. This was how our communities could converge and help each other affect the mainstream.

We hope we will bring existing communities together, rather than simply start a new one. In fact, shortly after I met Enlightenment, we recruited some of its core developers to form our entire developer team.

Doc: Tell us more about Enlightenment. What does it do?

DL: Enlightenment is an X Window System window manager. Like Compiz Fusion and other window managers, it's a graphical layer that sits on top of the Linux kernel. In the case of gOS, Enlightenment sits on top of a modified Ubuntu. Enlightenment was the ideal choice for gOS for a lot of reasons. Different from other window managers, Enlightenment enables gOS to run even better on the lowest-end hardware configurations. On the lowest-end hardware, the difference begins to show. That's where we see our advantage in today's market of expensive, high-end operating systems...Vista, Leopard. Enlightenment enables us to think about simplicity and affordability in a PC.

Doc: How about licensing? What are the licenses involved for gOS, for Enlightenment?

DL: gOS is free for personal use and noncommercial distribution. Specifically, we're under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license. The majority of software we've aggregated in gOS is under the GPL license—such as Enlightenment, Ubuntu, OpenOffice.org and other open-source software.

Doc: Is Compiz in your plans for gOS? If so, how?

DL: At the moment, we have no plans to use Compiz Fusion. We'd like to establish our difference with Enlightenment. With the next revision, we'd like to ask the community for even more support in helping us develop EFL (Enlightenment Foundation Libraries) applications that run in the Enlightenment environment. As of now, we're using a hybrid of EFL and non-EFL apps because our customers need a stable and full set of applications. For example, since we're launching gOS notebooks in Q1, we decided we had to tentatively replace our EFL-based Wi-Fi manager Exalt with Network Manager, because we were still seeing some problems with Exalt. In the future revisions, we hope to shift to all EFL-based apps so as to complement and make full use of Enlightenment.

Doc: Tell us about Faqly, and how you're going to interact with customers and users, as well as the dev communities.

DL: Faqly is people-powered tech support. It's a Web application that helps end users and developers help one another. It's been interesting to see our end users and developers interact and exchange tech support for user feedback.

Doc: We've read that you're offering a full year of 24/7 support. Is that true? What is the support policy overall, and how does it differ from competing offerings?

DL: It's true! Well, it's true for customers who purchase the Everex gPC. Wal-Mart requires PC companies to include toll-free tech support. Working with Everex and Wal-Mart enabled us to offer a full year of 24/7 toll-free support. That Everex supports open source with a toll-free support number is quite different from most other OEMs and their Linux products. Dell, for example, provides no support on its Ubuntu notebook. Initially, someone will pay the bill for getting open source to the mainstream users; we're glad that a smaller PC company like Everex is willing to lead the way.

Doc: Is this something for the low end, for the geeks or for geeks' moms?

DL: It's all those things—an ideal alternative, especially for a simple PC, something that works out of the box with the help of “the cloud” or Internet. We've also had a lot of people tell us they're excited about it, because they want to buy it for their moms or their dads, who don't need too much power and just want something simple, affordable and familiar.

Doc: But, it's still a Linux box, so the geek who's giving the gift can still ssh into it and help out if need be, right?

DL: It's definitely hackable. It's also good for someone who knows how to do customizing in general, or to work as-is. And yes, you can wipe it clean and install Windows if you like, but why would anyone want to do that? The gPC, in terms of components, assembly and the software combination alone is quite a deal.

The more important thing is where this is headed. I think we will soon see more companies invest their future in Web applications or “cloud computing”. What we're trying to do is jump the curve and help make a way for others to do the same.

Doc: Where do you fit in the midst of these other distros?

DL: I'd see our role as something like Kubuntu's has been. Derivative, but taking some new directions to be more consumer-friendly.

Doc: What direction, for example?

DL: There really is a growing subset of people in the Open Source community who care about consumers—people who want to make the Linux experience palatable for average Joes. That's a big shift. And, that's whom we're appealing to. We felt that Linux as a native OS project is a great platform, but it still hasn't gone that final step to really connect it to consumers and to differentiate it from everyone else in the consumer space. To do that, you really have to bring a consumer aspect, and we saw that in Web 2.0—in Google apps and YouTube.

Doc: When you talk about Web 2.0 apps, you mean ones that work in a browser as a kind of Web service?

DL: Pretty much. We're basically talking about software that runs in a browser and is based on Linux. It's a paradigm shift away from the way you would typically use software. Instead of compiling and selling it, and having it run in the system, you're running everything in the browser. And, there's a lot of Web 2.0 software out there that hasn't gotten into the eyes of the public.

Doc: Examples?

DL: Even with the Google Docs—spreadsheet, calendar—we were surprised at how people either had never heard of these things or had never tried them. We were among the first to put all the Google applications into one coherent package. So people could realize, going from one icon to another, that Google and Web 2.0 really are their computer. Not only that, but by computing in the cloud, users really are able to take their computer with them without taking their computer. As long as they can log on at a café or a friend's house, they have a computer of their own.

Doc: You don't generally think of desktops as being things that live in a browser. Are you abstracting the apps and their icons out of the browser and putting them on the desktop?

DL: Yes. That's the idea. Users are accustomed to seeing applications in a dock or in a start menu. We want to stick with the easiest and most-familiar models for desktop computing, even if the programs are executed elsewhere. So yes, we're using a lot of Firefox shortcuts. From a tech view, it's a lot of browser shortcuts on a dock. All the main ones are in a dock, and a few more are in the start menu.

Doc: How about for documents you want to keep on your own machine to work on when you're off-line? Calendars, for example.

DL: We're still waiting for Gmail and Google Calendar to work off-line with Google Gears. In the meantime, we packaged off-line applications, such as OpenOffice.org, Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird as well.

Doc: So you can do POP mail if you like.

DL: Exactly.

Doc: Or presentations that people might create on-line and then save to give off-line on their machine or transport by thumbdrive to another machine.

DL: Yes. Google has done a good job of balancing its products with open source. It just packaged OpenOffice.org into the Google Pack. With Google Gears, I think it's just a matter of time before we see every major Web application be capable of syncing and working off-line.

Doc: Are you in touch with the Google people on this?

DL: Yes. To be clear, the gOS is not the Google Operating System, although it is my idea of what one should be like. Even before we closed a hardware deal, I had used an obscure form on Google's Web site to apply for permission to use trademarks. I said, “Hey, we're an open-source OS project, and we want to make it easier for people to use Google apps, mind letting us use your icons and trademarks”? Two or three weeks later, we got a letter back, saying, “Yeah, go ahead, as long as you have a disclaimer saying this is not a Google product...” So we did it. We just didn't know we were going to get so much attention for it. When we started working with Everex, we found that it had its own standard toolbar deal with Google. Then Everex also showed Google a preview of our screenshots. In that sense, there was “approval” from Google, but no official endorsement. We have friends at Google and keep in touch with them on both the gPC and the gOS.

Doc: The g in gOS stands for...?

DL: The g stands for good. Our mission is to make a good OS. Good for everyone. For example, we knew Microsoft to be a big, mean Goliath to work with for OEMs. We wanted to make an OS that could be a good friend to both consumers and OEMs.

Doc: What is your dev community like? Have you grown your own, in addition to the Enlightenment folks?

DL: Our core dev team is about seven people. We've added one or two in the last month. Once we got in the news, people starting hearing about us, and we have developers coming in from different communities. Some Ubuntu developers are helping out too. So we have a nice, little community going and growing. It's still early and what we call “controlled chaos”. We're still trying to create a good structure so people who want to help can get started easily.

Doc: What's different about the community you see growing here?

DL: I think the younger generation of developers will include more Mac fans or Mac types. They're a bit more aesthetically inclined, more interested in the end-user experience. I see a future Open Source community that can take Linux further mainstream. Look at things like Compiz Fusion, Beryl—all that stuff. I had a chance to talk to Quinn Storm, the lead developer on Compiz and Beryl. She wanted people in the Linux community to make something end users could enjoy. After that conversation with her, I realized this was a growing community with a lot of promise.

Doc: Well, from an easy-to-use UI perspective, Apple has left the low end open. Do you see Linux making a move there?

DL: Yes. There are quite a few Linux themes that adopt some of the good things Apple has done on the UI. One remark I'd like to make on the low end—I think Linux also got a fighting chance when Microsoft launched Windows Vista. Vista pretty much obliterated the low-end hardware experience for Windows. I've tried it, and it's a terrible experience. So, there's an opportunity at the low end in general, because Apple continues to be a luxury product and now, possibly to compete with Mac OS X, Microsoft vacated the low-end space as well. We're happy about that.

Doc: So what are your ambitions here? How do you plan to grow?

DL: We plan to expand our list of hardware partners in the US and abroad. One of our long-term ambitions is to be a real friend to OEMs and the hardware industry as a whole. We all know it's been tough to work with Microsoft, and we thought there was a business opportunity to serve OEMs as a “Good OS” company. We'll always continue to improve gOS in terms of design and performance, and we'll also continue to package new Google and open-source software that we think are relevant to people buying a computer. We intend to keep gOS extremely lightweight, so as to keep the overall hardware costs down. With all this coming together, another one of our ambitions is to help close the digital divide with affordable computing. There are many people in the world, some even in the US, who don't have access to a computer and Internet. We think gOS needs to work with Google, Web 2.0, open source and others to tackle this important problem.

Doc: How about laptops? Generic desktops are all the same. But laptops are all different, by design, through OEM partnerships with Microsoft. What are your plans there?

DL: One of the things that will make our laptops viable is software that offers seamless syncing on-line and off. You are going to see gOS on laptops very soon, if not by the time you read this.

Doc: Are you partnered with other hardware companies?

DL: Right now, we're working with Everex, a single hardware partner, but the goal is to expand to working with other companies as well. As a software company, we really appreciate Everex and expect we'll be working with it exclusively in the short term since this launch. We are talking to a few hardware companies and are growing our team so we can work with more hardware partners.

Doc: I would think that Dell, Lenovo, HP and others would be looking at a Linux offering in the cost range that you're working in, at some point. Does that concern you?

DL: I think Dell was one of the big brands to launch a product, which is good, but among the smaller PC companies, Everex is still one of the top companies. It sells at Best Buy, Circuit City and Wal-Mart, yet it's small enough to be motivated to experiment and take chances with a company like ours. The larger hardware companies, such as Dell and HP, have a lot at stake with Vista, and with the Microsoft relationship. It seems to us that a company like Everex is less locked-down that way. So, we see companies like Everex taking the first steps that need to be made to take Linux mainstream.

Doc: You were just in China. What were you working on there?

DL: I went to an O'Reilly Foo Camp—a gathering of techies.

Doc: What was your takeaway from the Foo Camp there?

DL: We talked about Web 2.0 and open source in China. Things are exciting because we're seeing the same kind of Web 2.0 and Linux projects successfully launch in China. It's exciting because China is in the very early stages. Only a small minority of its population is on-line, and that is already more than 110 million people. I think it's the second-largest on-line population to the US. There are huge opportunities there with Linux and cloud computing.

Doc: People have been waiting for this segment to open up for a long time, and I'm not just talking about the low end of the PC marketplace. I'm talking about the browser as the environment for all kinds of applications. Because, this is exactly what Netscape talked about doing way back in 1995. One of the reasons Microsoft came after Netscape was because Netscape had the audacity to say the real desktop on the Net will be the browser.

DL: The Netscape folks were super-advanced thinkers. I think it's going to be really exciting to see things unfold here. A lot of people have been saying Web 2.0 is a bubble, but I don't think so.

Doc: I've said it's what we're going to call the next crash.

DL: Yeah, I think it definitely would be without cooperation from hardware. But, what if hardware cooperates? It always takes hardware some time to catch up to software. Hardware companies soon will need to give Web 2.0 a serious look.

Doc: What's the next big thing?

DL: I think it's Linux finally rising up, up into the cloud with Google and Web 2.0. Then, a lot of these startups that we laughed at will find themselves front and center for what's next in computing.

______________________

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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