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Instant-On Computing: The Killer OSS-Based PC Feature?

By John P. Mello Jr. LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Mar 18, 2009 4:00 AM PT

In our age of instant gratification, no one likes waiting for anything. That's why the sluggish launch time of a typical personal computer can make a consumer irritable. It's also why instant-on computing has become a sort of Holy Grail for hardware and software makers in the industry. The pursuit of instant-on is a quest that's given Linux traction in an arena that for years it has found a tough nut to crack -- the PC.

Instant-On Computing: The Killer OSS-Based PC Feature?

"There's no question that this is something that people want, particularly as they get to mobile devices," Michael Cherry, lead analyst for Windows and Windows mobile operating systems for Directions on Microsoft, told LinuxInsider.

"Everyone gets frustrated when they open their computer bag, open their computer, turn on the PC and wait for it to start up," he added.

When Microsoft Vista was introduced, the thinking was that the problem of sluggish start-up times could be addressed with hardware solutions, most notably flash memory drives. That solution has been slow to materialize, although some netbook computers have incorporated flash drives into their makeup to boost boot-up times.

Launch times for netbooks were also juiced by choosing Linux instead of Windows for their operating system, although that trend seems to have abated.

A significant portion of customers return Linux netbooks to stores, perhaps unclear about what they were buying, said Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at the Enderle Group. "And even the most aggressive estimates have their market share at under 20 percent," he told LinuxInsider.

Even that number is suspect, he argued. "Initially, all netbooks ran Linux, but then Microsoft allowed Windows XP to go on the boxes," he explained. "When you talk to the OEMs, they will give you a wink and a nod and say they're pretty sure most of the netbooks going out with Linux are ending up with pirated Windows XP."

Nevertheless, the popularity of the netbooks with their Linux roots and stripped down functionality has opened a new software vein in the quest for instant-on computing. One of the oldest of these solutions is Splashtop, from DeviceVM, which the company says is being shipped in more than 1 million products a month -- products produced by computer makers such as Asus, Lenovo, HP and LG.

Unlike the pure software solutions that followed it, a portion of Splashtop, which was introduced in October 2007, is "baked" into a system's motherboard. That helps the system achieve instant-on performance and launches the main body of the operating system, which is based on Linux.

"We build on Linux, but we're also focused on making the Linux environment into an appliance kind of field so we offer only a few applications that people use when they're on the net," DeviceVM cofounder and CTO Philip Sheu, told LinuxInsider.

"Everything under the hood is Linux," he added, "but we try to design it so it works very intuitively like an appliance."

Splashtop is also designed to coexist with Windows in a dual-boot environment. Depending on the flavor of the machine, a user can choose to use either Splashtop or Windows when they crank up their PC.

"Our value proposition is that we are a companion to Windows," Sheu said. "We do not aim to offer the wide range of applications or hardware management offered in full-featured Windows. We offer a very fast and simplified environment to do things on the Internet."

Another instant-on player is Phoenix Technologies, makers of HyperSpace. The product is the beginning of a paradigm Phoenix is calling "PC 3.0," with MSDOS being PC 1.0 and Windows being PC 2.0, according to company officials.

PC 3.0 is a significant departure from its predecessor, said Phoenix CTO and Senior Vice President Gaurav Banga.

"It is put together using virtualization and in a pleasing way in terms of graphics," he told LinuxInsider. "Network connectivity and predictability of key operations like instant-on are key items of it."

HyperSpace makes a PC behave more like a smartphone. Because of its advanced power management capabilities, the computer will rarely be turned off.

Booting, too, will be a rare event. "You may boot once a month, and the boot will be completed in 20 seconds," Banga noted.

A third player in the instant-on game is Xandros, which recently released a beta version of its Presto product. Unlike Splashtop, which has to be baked into a system, or HyperSpace, which can be persnickety to install, Presto runs as a simple Windows executable file that can be set up or trashed from the operating system's control panel.

Although Presto is Linux-based, Xandros isn't standing on the ramparts and waving a banner about it.

"We're not trying to push this as a Linux thing because we think that scares a lot of people," Xandros Product Marketing Manager Jordan Smith told LinuxInsider. "It's really a utility for Windows users to get in and have a browser, instant messaging and Skype without having to wait for Windows to boot."

These software developments in the instant on area may help expand Linux's presence on the PC desktop, said Amanda McPherson, vice president of marketing and developer services for the The Linux Foundation.

"This instant-on is a backdoor to say to Windows users, 'If you're not really interested in waiting four minutes for your Windows machine to boot up, just click this button,'" she told LinuxInsider.

"This is the process by which Linux is getting the packaging and support that it needs to make a dent in the desktop space," added Phoenix's Banga.


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