After an excruciatingly long time, it looks like Linux is finally taking hold. But maybe we should rename it the Google Operating System because, clearly, the big Daddy Warbucks of search is the wind beneath the wings of Linux these days.
Google's new Android initiative has a toehold on cell phones, and the company has long promoted open source on the web, where your browser is basically your OS. Now that's the rallying point for Linux developers on the desktop, as per new machines like the Asus (asus.com) Eee PC 4G mini laptop, Everex (everex.com) gPC TC2502 and Zonbu (zonbu.com) PCs. The search giant didn't build them, but you'd never know it from booting one up.
Everex's gPC desktop welcomes you with something called gOS. It's a Linux kernel that boots right into the Google toolbar with Google apps all over the desktop--Google Docs and Spreadsheets, Blogger, Calendar, Gmail, Maps and News. But Internet Explorer can be found in the start button, right? Nope. What about Outlook Express, Windows Media Player, Windows Meeting Space or Office Suite? Sorry. "We wanted to deliver a completely different experience by using Google and Web 2.0 applications," says gOS founder David Liu.
So instead, there are open source equivalents--Facebook, Firefox and Thunderbird, Meebo messenger, Skype, Xine video player and YouTube. Shuffle the deck with a few others like the Kontact PIM and OpenOffice.org productivity suite, and you get pretty much the same deal from Asus or Zonbu. Traditional Windows applications need not apply, even though gPC and Zonbu portable have plenty of room to hold them and optical read/write drives to load them (the Eee PC ultralight and Zonbu desktop have 4GB of flash storage).
But what about those gigabytes of Windows files you've collected? This paradigm says store them on the internet and use any of a passel of web alternatives like Zoho (zoho.com)to read them. Obviously, that doesn't include the entire computing ecosystem, which makes these PCs suitable only as web or mobile appliances for computing old-timers or heavy-duty content creators. But Millennials, who think about software as often as they do landline phones, aren't likely to feel the loss. For them, a computer is just a web endpoint that's less convenient than a cell phone.
But these PCs are cheaper than many cell phones. gPC is $199 sans display, while the Eee PC ultralight is $399. Zonbu's subscription model is $99 for a desktop or $279 for a portable with a $15-a-month web storage/backup/maintenance plan (without the plan, it's $299 for the desktop and $479 for the portable). Price tags reflect the hundreds of dollars that vendors aren't paying for Windows and Windows applications. And, of course, you won't be paying for security software to safeguard them. Besides being mostly free, open source applications are free of malware and most copying restrictions.
Hardwarewise, these boxes don't look good on paper. They have less of everything, including memory and weight--even the desktops have processing and energy profiles comparable to power-saving Windows portables. Zonbu's new portable is your basic 5.3-pound thin-and-light with a 15.4-inch screen. But the Eee PC ultralight is for you travelers who'll find any excuse to leave your laptop at home. Its 7-inch display and small keyboard aren't for PowerPoint presentations or other heavy lifting. But at 2 pounds, you can toss it in your briefcase or garment bag and read e-mail and spreadsheets anywhere.
These computers lack resources because they don't need power for a skinny operating system and apps designed to execute most tasks on the web. Their appointments reflect their mission: to be endpoints to that big computer in the sky.
Mike Hogan (email@example.com) is Entrepreneur's technology editor.