BabelDisc: Linux for technophobes?

But the system software, which shuns your hard drive, will also appeal to enterprise IT types, says U.K. Internet pioneer Peter Dawe.

A new Linux distribution designed to be as user-friendly as possible went into beta testing Tuesday.

BabelDisc, the brainchild of U.K. Internet pioneer and Pipex founder Peter Dawe, is a lightweight

Dawe, speaking to ZDNet UK Wednesday, said BabelDisc was suitable for a variety of users, not the least of whom are technophobes. "It is pretty much designed for people's mothers--certain users want to switch it on and want it always to look the same," he said, noting that many people are scared of computing because unpredictability "undermines their confidence."

"We are targeting the 60 percent of the population that are unhappy using computers," Dawe said, "but some of the other 40 percent will also find our proposition attractive because they're fed up with being the unpaid support engineers for Microsoft."

The disc comes with a variety of preinstalled open-source applications, including Firefox, OpenOffice, Sylpheed (for e-mail), F-Spot (for viewing photos), Xine (for music and video) and Gaim (for instant messaging). Application upgrades are performed automatically at the boot stage. "A lot of the smartness of what we've done is actually removing features," Dawe said. "In our environment, you cannot add another application, as the BabelDisc user doesn't have root privilege--this is to make it as foolproof as possible."

Dawe also claimed that the distribution would find a natural user base in the enterprise environment. "With an awful lot of staff, all they require is access to Web and intranet applications, word processing, e-mail and IM. The BabelDisc service is one where you can just take virtually any old PC made since the year 2000, put the disc in, and that person is instantly up and running."

A critical element of the design is that "you can try Linux at no risk to your Windows installation," Dawe continued. For "virtually all the other Linux distributions, you have to install onto the hard drive. We've actually designed it so you cannot write to the hard drive, (although) you can read from the hard drive, so you can import your files into the BabelDisc environment."

The storage for that environment is hosted in data centers using Rackspace, bought by Dawes, around the world. This element is the core of Dawe's business plan: It requires users to pay $1 per gigabyte per month--the only costs of using BabelDisc.

Asked if business users might be put off by the lack of local storage, Dawe insisted that BabelDisc was "using a very reputable company" as its hosting provider, but conceded that "confidence and trust is something that we have to earn. The best way we can reassure (users) is that half my team here is from the early days of my original company, Pipex."

The BabelDisc CD also contains software to set up a "BabelBooster"--software installed on a USB hard drive to free up the PC's CD drive and accelerate start-up and performance. Other Linux distributions such as Mandriva are becoming available purely on USB, but Dawe suggested that BabelDisc's continued use of a CD was "a virus protection feature, in that malware cannot write to the CD by definition, so the user always has access to a clean distribution."

But a purely USB-based version of BabelDisc is also in the pipeline, Dawe said, adding that it would be as secure as the CD-based version. He also said that while BabelDisc was suitable as a rescue disk "where someone has a Linux distribution that has gone AWOL," he believes it is likely that "a lot of people won't go back to Windows" after using it.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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