November 12, 2008

Splashtop moves into netbooks

Author: Nathan Willis

The Splashtop instant-on Linux environment is included in the new Lenovo IdeaPad S10e netbook, marking the product's first appearance in that form factor. That news should come as no surprise, since netbooks' ultra-portability is a natural match for Splashtop's instant-on.

The IdeaPad S10e is an Atom-powered, 10.1-inch, education-oriented netbook scheduled to hit shelves this month in a variety of storage and operating system combinations, including SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop.

Lenovo's Splashtop deployment is called Quick Start in the promotional materials, keeping in line with the relabeling trend established by other hardware vendors: Asus calls its implementation ExpressGate; Hewlett-Packard calls it VooDoo IOS.

Sergei Krupenin, senior director of marketing for Splashtop creator DeviceVM, chuckled when asked whether the rebranding was a concern for the company. "It's essential for the OEMs to be able differentiate Splashtop. We think that's great; we want them to be able to provide an experience that fits in with rest of their products -- that is one of our value propositions."

DeviceVM's Web site lists 39 products that ship with Splashtop, a number Krupenin says is surely out of date considering the multiple product lines continuously being refreshed by the different manufacturers.

Splashtop has evolved since we first covered it in March. All of the applications have been updated, including the proprietary Skype client. The browser is still based on Firefox 2.x, but now includes Java (Sun JRE 1.6). An entirely new app segment has been introduced: networked games. And, perhaps most importantly, the Splashtop installation is now updatable by the end user. Previous releases could only be upgraded by the manufacturer.

The netbook factor

Krupenin calls Splashtop's entry into the netbook market important because of the tremendous momentum of small form factor devices. "By definition, netbooks are Web-centric, and although the usage model is still in flux, the whole category makes sense for Splashtop. Splashtop is all about Web content; getting online quickly and easily."

DeviceVM also recently announced its participation in the project, a community-driven effort to build and maintain a Linux software stack for Atom-powered mobile Internet devices such as netbooks.

Splashtop is not the only possibility for achieving a fast-booting Linux environment. At the Linux Plumbers' Conference in October, Arjan van de Ven and Auke Kok demonstrated booting two heavily modified Linux systems in less than five seconds -- including a Moblin system image on an Asus Eee PC netbook.

I asked Krupenin whether DeviceVM sees such work as a threat or healthy competition. He said Splashtop is intended to serve as an alternative to the main OS on whichever hardware it is deployed, not to replace or compete with whatever else might be installed. "We want the consumer to have that choice. For a lot of people, the advantage is about being able to send that email very quickly when they need to."

Consequently, he says, the company is excited to see efforts to enhance any part of the Linux software stack -- although on many devices, the lower bound on boot time is limited by the speed of the BIOS, so Splashtop's presence on system ROM still represents a unique value.

Moving forward

The Moblin move marks a new level of community participation for DeviceVM. Although the company makes use of several open source applications and utilities and provides source code for all of its modifications, historically it has not been very active with the upstream projects themselves.

Similarly, Krupenin expressed regret that the Splashtop software development kit (SDK) had yet to make it out the front door. The company wants to build relationships with independent software developers, as witnessed by its blog, which even reports on Splashtop hacks. The trouble, according to Krupenin, is simply one of time. The young company has had to expand rapidly in 2008 just to accommodate its additional OEM customers, leaving few resources to devote to other projects. Still, the SDK remains firmly on the roadmap, as do further software enhancements such as Firefox 3.

Splashtop's appearance on the IdeaPad S10e is the convergence of two intriguing ideas. DeviceVM clearly has a winner with its Linux-driven instant-on environment, and Linux dominates in the ballooning low-power netbook arena. One can't help but wonder when the two trends will meet, and some vendor will ship a netbook with instant-on Splashtop as its primary operating system. To that question, DeviceVM had no comment.


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