The real Fake Steve Jobs, Forbes’s Daniel Lyons, has parted company with his alter ego in giving a rave review to a $99 Linux-based unPC called the Zonbu. The Zonbu basically takes the old Ma Bell model of telephone service and applies it to computing. You get the device and a set of services for a modest upfront cost and a low monthly fee. As Lyons explains:
It comes preloaded with a modified version of the free Linux operating system and a set of basic applications, none of them from Microsoft. There’s no power-gobbling microprocessor from Intel or AMD and no optical or hard drive, just 4 gigabytes of flash memory so you can store a few files locally. The bulk of your files are stashed on the Web, thanks to a deal Zonbu struck with Amazon’s S3 online storage service. The catch, if you want to call it that, is that the $99 price requires you to pay a monthly fee for support and software updates. The fee is based on storage, ranging from $13 for 25 gigabytes to $20 for 100 gigabytes.
Lyons’s verdict after putting the setup to the test: “I’ve been using a Zonbu for weeks and have been blown away. It’s fast and stable and boasts a clean, simple user interface.” It syncs files seamlessly between the local flash drive and the S3 data store, says Lyons, and “you can easily store everything locally by connecting an external drive to one of Zonbu’s six USB ports.” The machine offers “a bunch of open-source applications such as the Firefox Web browser, Open Office (a free clone of Microsoft Office), an e-mail client called Evolution, a music player called Banshee and a photo manager. You also get the Skype Internet phone software, a bunch of games and the whizziest desktop backgrounds and screen savers I’ve ever seen.” It’s largely virus-free, and it “squeezes its operating system and 20 applications into a mere 700 megabytes.”
Lyons notes that the Zonbu isn’t for everyone – you’re probably not going to edit a lot of high-definition video on it – but “as a second pc for the kids, the kitchen or the weekend house where you just need to browse the Web, it’s a killer product.” This model of personal computing, it’s worth mentioning, makes particular sense in the developing world, where a lot of people can’t afford to buy a PC and a bunch of software. There are already a number of companies that are pioneering the model in that context, like Novatium in India. But if you project current technological trends ahead a few years, you can see that a simple, relatively carefree thin client like the Zonbu, which is being marketed as “the first environmentally responsible computer without the hassle and high price,” will make more and more sense for more and more people.
The current Zonbu is designed as a desktop machine, but it wouldn’t take much to come out with a portable version of the dimunitive device. It’s not inconcievable that such a machine might become the first CloudBook – assuming, that is, that the real Real Steve Jobs doesn’t uncripple the iPod Touch, which is, after all, a CloudBook trapped inside a jukebox.