January 23, 2003

Voila! Workspot Linux is instant and portable "magic"

- by Tina Gasperson -
Workspot is an online Linux desktop. You go there in any browser (java-enabled is better), login, and start up Red Hat Linux within that browser. It is so cool, I really want it to be something that people go for. I want it to succeed.

I'm not so sure it can - but the guy who runs things at Workspot is a believer. He's reaching out to newbies, collaborators, and "mobile people."

CEO Greg Bryant started Workspot just before the dot-com boom got big. He wanted it
to be a "Hotmail-like web service" that instead of just providing email,
provided a complete Linux workstation that could be accessed from any
Internet-enabled computer.

Workspot got caught up in the boom and attracted the attention of investors.
They began providing remotely-hosted applications "solutions," calling
themselves an Open Source "applications service provider." But their heart was
still with the basics - Workspot as a standalone, portable, remotedly hosted
Linux workstation.

With the decline in funds that came when the boom busted, Bryant and company
were forced to go back to those basics, and so now we have a production release
of Workspot available for a $9.95 monthly subscription fee.

"We've spent a great deal of time and energy putting together a
project that may help convert the general public to GNU/Linux
on the desktop," says Bryant. "This is a serious effort, we're proud of it, we
think it's magic."

Bryant says that the underlying premise with Workspot is that, if the majority
of computer users had an online demo of the Linux desktop, they "would be
willing to convert," and the domination of proprietary software companies would
end. With a newbie market that encompasses "half a billion" people who have Internet connectivity but don't yet run Linux, Bryant says, "I hope they don't all come at once."

The newbs will like it, says Bryant, because
"It's a normal user account, so someone can use it for e-mail and mobile work,
and see if it's comfortable for day-to-day use."

As for collaborators,

"If techie friends
want to help guide someone through GNU/Linux applications, Workspot has a remote

collaborative feature that lets users see each other's desktops."

Bryant shares a scenario. "Three people, working at three
different companies, want to work on a small project together. They
get three Workspots, and they start to show each other their current work
on their desktops, while they use chat & e-mail to communicate, and
webdav to transfer files. No new machines required, and they keep
stuff off of their corporate hard drives. It's a GNU-ish version of what
WebEx does, I suppose. And -they- have 6,000 customers."

As for the mobile users, Bryant is sure that, given the popularity of webmail, at least a segment of that market would also be interested in having an online desktop. "I know many people who 'program-on-the-side,'
or who need to have an Open Office or a Gimp available to them in a
pinch -- they're travelling light. Sysdmins need it so they can ssh into
their work machines, no matter what PC they have at hand," he says.

Bryant says that although Workspot doesn't have any subscribers yet, the company

has plans to initiate an affiliate program. "When surfers click through an
affiliate site (one like, let's say, GnuCash's) and register, that site gets 25%

of the registration fee.
Since many of these projects are already showcased on Workspot, I think
this is a sensible and useful way to generate income."

Bryant also dreams of setting up micropayments for new applications or for
custom configurations, whereby he says, open source programmers would be able to

earn a living. "And they'd get better feedback from users, leading to faster UI
improvements," he says.

So, how does Workspot work within the confines of the GNU General Public
License? "Well, I'll start with source code. We have no desire to hide code,"
says Bryant. "If we
make changes to anything under GPL, we put it up on http://www.workspot.org.

"VNC gets distributed to users, so this is required under GPL. But if we
make a change to, say, Nautilus, we'll post the changes, even though
we don't have to -- we're making-believe that GPL has a 'public performance'
clause, which I believe it should. Websites don't generally distribute code,
so GPL is pretty weak against the privatization of GPL'd web products--unless
they're used by millions, like apache.

"The source for everything else you see is available online elsewhere. The glue
we've packaged it all together with wouldn't interest people yet -- but we'll
divide it up usefully and distribute it under GPL later, with an added public
performance clause.

"The use of our servers isn't source code distribution -- and so isn't covered
by GPL. It's simply 'use of services.' Hypothetically, if someone gives out
login, against our contract, it would be a breach of contract. But that's just
temporary: and unenforced. What I really want is a physical contraint -- just
one VNC connection per user. We're implementing that now. Only because,
if they want more connections, that means more bandwidth, and that will cost
us more money, so the user should have to pay extra for it."

Bryant says that the desktop sessions are not encrypted, and admits that
Workspot is not really secure, yet. But he says it is "really hard to snoop. If
I was learning or evaluating GNU/Linux applications, or even using them for
small jobs, I personally wouldn't care much that some powerful-super-spy-hacker
could see it. It's like going for a testdrive -- a semi-public kind of thing.

"But for those moments of privacy, there are several encrypted VNC solutions
we're evaluating and implementing this quarter. Once encryption is
implemented, people will probably start to see it as a mobile identity.
Ximian Evolution on Workspot beats the Hotmail interface -any- day!"

Bryant admits that the target market hasn't quite been convinced yet. "...Our
biggest hurdle is just getting people to understand it. Techies do, but until we

become a showcase for sub-stable software, which we're planning, it would be
kind of a luxury for them to subscribe. Normal people, who'd like to try GNU
out, or have it around occasionally, don't really get it, because it's such an
unusual beast."

We tried Workspot out and found it fun and interesting. Basically, you surf to
workspot.com, login and start your desktop, within the browser. There's also an
option to run Workspot straight from vnc, which is supposed to enhance the
responsiveness, but for most people, running it from within the browser is
easiest. Just make sure you have java installed and enabled.

The GNOME desktop quickly appears, and everything is just as it normally is in
the Linux desktop. I had a noticeable lag but it wasn't enough to make the
system unusable or even unenjoyable. Your mileage may vary, depending on the
amount of RAM and bandwidth you have available.

You get the standard apps - Gimp, OpenOffice.org, games, emacs, etc. I ran Gaim
with no problem, but xchat didn't work. There's no sound, and printing is not
possible at this point. Neither Evolution nor Kmail were able to connect for me
through Workspot. I wouldn't recommend using mail services on Workspot anyway,
since it is unsecure.

It is bizarre surfing the 'Net on a browser within a browser, but completely
possible. Again, ignoring the fact that it's redundant, I wouldn't do it if it
means logging in anywhere.

If you have open source software you'd like to install on your Workspot account,

feel free as long as it doesn't have to be system-wide. Understandably, you
don't get any root access here. Just for fun, I thought I'd see if I could get
java installed and then LimeWire. Downloading java was fun - 17mb in about 4
seconds. But there were glitches in unpacking the file that I couldn't
investigate because, no root access. It's just not convenient. Not to mention
that java is either not installed on the system or it is just not included in
the path (though a cursory look through the /usr directories didn't turn up any
java). Probably not a huge deal, unless you want to run java-based applications
or you visit any sites with java applets.

If you have Windows friends who want to try out this "insta-Linux" it would
probably be worth it to kick down $9.95 for a month's trial. Bryant says its
good for programmers too, says he finds himself often with Internet access but
without his programming tools, and Workspot comes in handy for that.


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