Not Just a Flash in the Pan

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When I read that Asus was to embed DeviceVM's GNU/Linux-based Splashtop Linux on millions of mainstream motherboards, I wasn't particularly impressed. It's all very well putting this stuff on motherboards, but quite another thing using it – how many times have you poked around the ROM on your motherboard? It seemed more or a gimmick to me – a box on the features list that could be ticked.

But in the light of this further news, maybe I was wrong:

DeviceVM has announced that its Splashtop 'instant-on' Linux is to appear on Asus laptops from this summer.

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The first Asus machines to feature the system will be the M70T, M50V, M51Vr, and high-end F8Va/Vr, but it looks as if all new Asus laptops will feature the software in time.

Anyone buying such a machine will be buying a conventional Windows Vista laptop, but with a key difference. At boot time they can bypass the lengthy Windows startup to load a suite of simple Linux applications from a flash chip in a matter of seconds. These include a version of Mozilla's Firefox, Skype telephony app, and a simple photo viewer and media player, but might be extended to cover new types of software in future.

This is a rather different matter, because these are real machines that will have this facility. That means that users will certainly be made aware of it at boot time, and will probably try it out at least once. What they find will amaze them: a system capable of booting in a few seconds that lets them carry out most of their Web-based tasks to perfection – an increasingly important part of their computing as more and more apps move into the cloud.

Moreover, the availability of this system will stand in stark contrast to the sclerotic Windows Vista that is also on the machine. Users will be able to compare first hand the gulf that separates the two systems, and will be faced with an interesting choice: watch the gazelle-like GNU/Linux spring into life in a few seconds or hang around waiting minutes for Vista to rise with the grace of a comatose Kraken to the surface of digital consciousness.

If you don't think people will care, just look at what happened with Asus's other recent innovative system, the Eee PC. There, people was astonished to discover just how fast, stable and usable GNU/Linux and its apps are. I now think the same could well happen with these new Splashtop machines. And, just as with the Eee PC, it's going to be hard for Microsoft to match this move, since its entire engineering philosophy is hurtling in the wrong direction: bigger, fatter, slower. Once again, the power of the open source approach – modularity and customisability – is displayed.

It will be interesting to see whether this Splashtop sector develops as quickly as the other one pioneered by Asus, that of the ultraportables, which is now red hot in terms of customer and vendor interest, as the dozens of machines from HP and Dell downwards attest. Both ultraportables and Splashtops are reminders that contrary to certain assertions, innovation is coming out of the GNU/Linux world these days, not from Windows.