Desktop Linux as a Service: Will it Work?

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?


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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?

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Tags: Linux, services, Microsoft, OS X

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