I just got a chance to try out a Webware PC: a computer built around the new P5E3 Deluxe/WiFi-AP motherboard from Asus. What makes this motherboard be hardware for Webware is that it has a Firefox Web browser (running on an embedded Linux operating system) burned into ROM. It also has Skype. You turn it on, and in fifteen seconds (I timed it), you can be in Firefox and surfing the Web.
You can also boot it into Windows, or whatever OS you have installed on the hard disk. Boring.
This built-in browser has a lot of great things but some drawbacks too.
In the plus category: This alternate operating system, provided by DeviceVM to Asus, is fast and convenient. There's no giant OS to boot before you get into your browser, which is a slimmed-down version of Firefox, not some weird, quasibrowser that doesn't do what you want. There's a Flash plug-in installed so most modern sites render properly. Flash videos play just fine. The system saves all your settings (including bookmarks) in memory, so you don't have to start from scratch every time you fire it up.
The P5E3 motherboard has nearly everything built in that you'll need. Connecting to a network--wired or WiFi--is fast and easy. Skype has access to the board's audio in and out ports.
Because the DeviceVM platform doesn't have access to the hard disks connected to the motherboard, the system is very secure. So if, say, guests wants to use your PC to check their Web mail, you can boot them into the ExpressGate environment (that's what Asus calls it) and not worry about them junking up your PC. You might want to clear your private data from the Firefox cache first, though.
And this motherboard is "green," at least in theory. Many people leave their PCs on all the time, because launching a browser from a cold PC can take several minutes. With this setup, you can turn off the PC when you're done browsing, and when you need to get back online, you can be there in seconds.
Should you get one of these motherboards just for its ExpressGate feature, though?
No. As cool and useful as ExpressGate feature is, the Asus P5E3 is the wrong product for it to be embedded in. This motherboard is at the top of the Asus line and costs $350 in a market where most other products are under $200. (To be fair, the motherboard is loaded with high-end features and technology). So forget using this product for cost savings. Since it's such a powerful mobo, it's going to be built into high-end PCs, most likely with high-end graphics cards and kilowatt power supplies that will obviate the potential power savings from the lightweight, instant-on operating system.
And it doesn't support Firefox plug-ins and add-ons, which is a drag.
I spoke with DeviceVM execs Sol Lipman and David Speiser, and I think they recognize the mismatch of their technology and the first product that carries it. However, the P5E3 isn't the only motherboard that will carry their embedded OS and browser. In the first quarter of 2008, we'll see laptops with the embedded browser, which is where it's really needed, and we should also start seeing it in less-expensive desktops.
The company is also adding more features to its pre-boot OS. Right now you get Firefox and Skype built in, but future revisions will get DVD and CD players, the Pidgin IM client, and the capability to play media files from the host machine's hard drive. To save electricity, a future revision of the P5E3 product will enable the Asus motherboard to drop into its lowest power mode when running the browser. (And even that is probably overkill for the lightweight OS.)
As I said, I don't think it'd be smart to buy this product for the sole purpose of using its embedded Web browser. It's a nice addition, though, and this capability makes sense for laptops and especially for low-price, low-powered, Web-only PCs. A year ago, the concept of a Web-only computer was a nonstarter for almost everyone, but with today's Web-based apps it begins to make sense for a lot of users. Products using this technology, configured without Windows or hard drives, can be very capable workstations.