It’s Starting to Sound a Lot Like Linux Part III: Linux as a Box, Linux as a Service
Happy New Year! Hope you are well and in good spirits. In my last two posts I talked about upgrading my computer systems, and so far I’m halfway there. I have the Linux box up and running (which I have named “Atom-Smasher”). But I have not replaced the CPU in my laptop yet, but all in good time.
The main thing for today is to get to the discussion about Linux as a service. If you read the previous posts you know that I was trying to set up a completely diskless low-cost PC to run Linux. I wanted a low-cost way to try Linux, but in the back of all of this there was the idea that there is a viable business model waiting to be developed.
Diskless PC’s are nothing new. The last issue of Wired had a breif discussion about the mid-90s “Internet PC” work done by Oracle. And low end laptops for developing nations have been part of at least one global effort, and now we see “net-books” being almost free (if you sign up for the phone service).
But when I saw Tom Abel’s offer of a $150 box, I started thinking about the possibilities. Now granted Tom can’t offer those prices forever — if all he is selling is a box. But ask yourself this: how many K-12, how many churches, vocational schools, community colleges, food-banks, NGOs, small businesses of all sorts need cheap, virus free, indestructible computing infrastructure? All of them. Think of how many opportunities there are for K-12 computer labs, adult education computer labs, disaster relief situations. Opportunities are all over the place.
Many years ago I staffed a library reference desk and as part of the job I managed a computer lab. Twenty or so computers with full installations of Windows (they had some setting that hid most of the Windows features, but it was easy to hack). On any given night at least 8 reboots. I said to my supervisor, why not go with Linux? A couple of weeks later the reply came back: “no support for Linux”. I thought, well, your support for Windows is me rebooting the machines constantly, at a community college teacher’s salary. Not very cost effective.
So I know something about the use model. But how to create a successful business model? One way would be to offer up the boxes at cost +5% (or something) and sell a service contract to maintain them. Not one box, but 10, or 20 or however many. Think of a community college computer lab as an example. Let’s say 20 boxes, no optical drive, no HDD. The students supply their own flash drive with their own computing environment. They step up, plug in the USB, go to work. They manage their files on the USB, or use a cloud service (Amazon, Google), or both. Heck, you could even have them bring their own keyboard. You could set up the flashdrives for them with Thunderbird, Firefox, OpenOffice for a fee. The point is they manage their own file services.
If each box has to have it’s own OS, drive it off the network. The network OS server itself could be run off an ISO image (e.g., a CD). The maintenance can be done remotely. It won’t matter if it’s a bit slow, because the use model we’re talking about is not high performance. What matter is that it’s low, low maintenance, virus free and nearly hack-proof.
This business model would require quite a few boxes under contract to be a meaningful source of income. And I know there are some technical issues — running the OS off a flashdrive is problematic (more on this later), you need a keyboard, a mouse, a monitor all of which drives up the cost. But I think the technology will catch up to the use model quite soon (roll-up keyboards, cheaper LCDs, or for that matter maybe micro-projectors). I think small companies like ICL could make a success out of this.
Like razors and printers, offer the hardware cheap and charge for the service. It might be possible to sell other services (e.g., webmastering)s along with the maintenance contract. Lots of possibilities.
Well that’s it for now. Have a great day and thanks for stopping by!