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Zonbu: an intersection of open source, Web 2.0 and energy efficiency

Salon.com recently reviewed Zonbu, a highly compact general-purpose computer with no moving parts.

Zonbu's key features are its incredibly low power consumption, network-connected storage and that it works right out of the box without any installation. Under the covers, it's a Gentoo Linux installation with mainstream open source apps such as OpenOffice and Firefox.

Zonbu skins
Zonbu and its skins — high-powered dressing for a low-power device

Price-wise, you can get the Zonbu for as little as $99 if you commit to two years' subscription to the network storage. Understanding the open source ethos, Zonbu also offer the box without any tether for $250. As with the Mac mini, supplying the keyboard, mouse and monitor is up to you.

Preloaded with an office suite, email, IM, web browser, multimedia player, games and Skype, Zonbu is aimed at being a general computing appliance. You can't install anything else on it, but then again, that way you can't break it easily either. It sounds the sort of thing I'd be happy leaving with non-technical family and friends.

Storage with Amazon S3

Low-power solid state devices are nothing new of course, there are a variety available, and things such as the NSLU2 have been in production for some years. The novel thing about the Zonbu however is in how it manages its storage.

The Zonbu has 4GB of compact flash storage on board, which it uses as a cache for Amazon's S3 storage network. All your files get encrypted and sent to S3, and are retrieved when you need them. One really neat consequence of this is that you can get at your data via the web any time you want.

Secondly, it gives me some sense of security for my data. I don't know if Zonbu will give me the 'keys' to my data on S3, but it wouldn't be hard for them to provide an easy way to migrate out. Either way, S3 is a place I'd trust with my data.

Why Zonbu is important

Windows, and to some extent, Mac OS X, are becoming the needy children of computing, always tugging on your arm and asking you something. In contrast, Zonbu looks like a great step towards "appliance computing". Its features are more like those you'd expect from your phone or cable TV provider:

  • it's a black-box appliance that users don't need to care about, with little or no vulnerability to malware
  • the real value of the product is in the network
  • the system is upgraded as part of the subscription

Zonbu has the potential to change domestic computing. The low price point lowers the barrier to computer ownership. Low maintenance needs lower the technical barrier to entry and use. And Zonbu's a green and economical technology, yet as useful as the full power version.

As a company, I feel Zonbu to be a well-intentioned player because of their strong support for open source, and the ease with which you can get at your data despite its appliance nature. I hope they continue to develop in this open data direction.

Zonbu itself probably won't attain ubiquity, but it will change the marketplace and open up a new category of network-connected appliances for the home.

Further reading

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