Last month I wrote a research note about some of the changes going on with the desktop PC. We're seeing more variety and experimentation with client devices than we've ever seen. Handhelds grab most of the headlines. (And some of the nascent trends around "Ultra-Mobile PCs" and "Mobile Internet Devices" are genuinely worthy of attention.) However, there's action on the desktop too. My research note delves into the background behind these trends in considerable depth but, in a nutshell, people are starting to wonder: "If most of my computing is out in the network cloud anyway, why is it that I need a big, noisy, hard-to-manage desktop PC?"
Dan Lyons over at Forbes.com reports on one of the latest desktop PC alternatives, from the Menlo Park-based Zonbu. It's a small box powered by a Via x86-compatible processor with 512MB of DRAM and 4GB of flash for storage. It runs a custom Linux distribution that comes packaged with Firefox, Skype, Open Office, Peer-to-Peer clients and lots of multimedia applications and games. The unit doesn't have any fans, something that leads the company to loudly trumpet its eco-friendliness--a laudable goal certainly, if one that's in danger of getting more than a bit overexposed these days.
With only a modicum of local storage, most user data will be stored out in the network. Zonbu has cut a deal with Amazon to use their S3 service. For $12.95 per month, you get up to 25GB of storage and free upgrades to newer versions of the operating system and applications. For $19.95, you get 100GB. 2GB of storage and software upgrades are free. The device itself is $249--but you can get $50 off for pre-paying for one year and $150 off for pre-paying for two. Put another way, for $371 you get the device and 25GB of storage for 2 years. You add your own keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Wireless requires a WiFi "dongle" connected to one of the USB ports (it comes with a standard 10/100Mbs wired Ethernet port.
I don't see this as a replacement for the main PC in most households--unless that PC really does just get used to check email, write the occasional letter, and download pictures. At the least, you'd need to accept that the device support (cameras, printers, etc.) is going to be skimpier than a Windows PC--although Linux has gotten much better in this regard and Zonbu appears to have put a great deal of work into documenting what devices do work. Furthermore, it's intended to just run the fixed set of delivered software although, presumably, the technically savvy could add applications or otherwise make changes to the base package.
However, this looks very interesting as a supplementary PC for children, for the kitchen, or for a second house. The biggest issue with having multiple PCs in the home isn't really the cost of the additional PCs; boxes are pretty cheap these days. Rather, it's keeping them all updated, backed-up, and virus-free. Nor do you especially want whirring fans in the same room where you're trying to watch TV. Viewed in that context, this looks very interesting. I wouldn't mind trying one myself.