Has the time for desktop Linux finally arrived? One relevant data point is that Wal-Mart has sold out of the Everex gPC, a Google-friendly, Linux-based PC priced at $199.
Wal-Mart says more units are on the way for the holiday season, but right now the retailer's Web site indicates the machines are sold out. The gPC has been one of the top performing desktop computers on Wal-Mart.com over the last few weeks, a company spokesperson said, but Wal-Mart did not release actual sales numbers.
The gPC runs a version of Linux called gOS, and uses a 1.5-GHz processor from Via Technologies, an 80-GB hard drive, and 512 MB of RAM.
Cloud Computing, Branded Google
The gOS is actually a customized version of Ubuntu, a Linux distribution that is considered a breakthrough for Linux on the desktop. "Ubuntu really seems to be rising as the user-friendly Linux OS of choice," Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, said in a recent telephone interview. With the success of the gPC, that prediction could be coming true.
Built on the newly released Ubuntu 7.10, which might be the first Linux distribution to offer Mac-like 3D graphics meant to appeal to consumers, the gPC comes with standard open-source software such as Firefox and OpenOffice. But one interesting twist is that the computing experience is not desktop-oriented but rather focused on the "cloud," the universe of applications available online.
And for gPC users, that cloud is branded "Google."
"We recommend Google for just about everything ... Gmail, Gtalk, Calendar, Maps, Docs and Spreadsheets, and more. We'd like to welcome you to the idea that Google already is your 'operating system,'" said Paul Kim, Everex's director of marketing. "Our dream is to combine Linux with Google and put it into the mass market."
Wedge for Linux
The combination of Google applications and storage in the cloud with a consumer-friendly Linux OS has produced one of the first successful Microsoft-free desktop experiences for consumers.
It's hard to tell whether the apparent success of the gPC means a new day is dawning for Linux desktops, Greg Sterling, principal analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence, said in a telephone interview. "I think people are responding to the price. At $200, its almost disposable," he said. "If it works, it's a great buy; if not, it's not a big loss."
But, Sterling said, "it's too early to say if it's going to be a wedge into Windows sales." Proof of that will only come with sustained sales data, he said. If initial buyers are dissatisfied with the experience, or find that not being able to run Microsoft Office is problematic, or don't realize that they're not buying a Windows machine, the initial excitement around a $200 computer could soon dissipate.
As long as the machines prove to be reliable, "the only real issue is the software people are accustomed to running, meaning Office," Sterling said. Actually, meaning Word. "Most people don't use Excel or PowerPoint," he added.
Buyers have two options for a Word alternative on the Everex desktop: OpenOffice for a more full-featured desktop word processor and Google Apps for a simple, online-only experience. "If most of your activities are online, Google Apps is probably good enough," Sterling said. "It obviously falls quite a bit short of desktop word processors."
In some ways, the gPC moves computing toward the thin-client vision of Sun's Scott McNealy and Oracle's Larry Ellison. "It's an amazing thing," Sterling said. "Today, you can't work on a PC without an Internet connection. To some degree that's what's going on with cloud computing. We're in the middle of some sort of shift."