Workspot. is an online Linux desktop. You go there in any browser (java-enabled is better), login, and start up Red Hat Linux within that browser. It is so cool, I really want it to be something that people go for. I want it to succeed.
I'm not so sure it can - but the guy who runs things at Workspot is a believer. He's reaching out to newbies, collaborators, and "mobile people."
CEO Greg Bryant started Workspot just before the dot-com boom got big. He wanted it to be a "Hotmail-like web service" that instead of just providing email, provided a complete Linux workstation that could be accessed from any Internet-enabled computer.
Workspot got caught up in the boom and attracted the attention of investors. They began providing remotely-hosted applications "solutions," calling themselves an Open Source "applications service provider." But their heart was still with the basics - Workspot as a standalone, portable, remotedly hosted Linux workstation.
With the decline in funds that came when the boom busted, Bryant and company were forced to go back to those basics, and so now we have a production release of Workspot available for a $9.95 monthly subscription fee.
"We've spent a great deal of time and energy putting together a project that may help convert the general public to GNU/Linux on the desktop," says Bryant. "This is a serious effort, we're proud of it, we think it's magic."
Bryant says that the underlying premise with Workspot is that, if the majority of computer users had an online demo of the Linux desktop, they "would be willing to convert," and the domination of proprietary software companies would end. With a newbie market that encompasses "half a billion" people who have Internet connectivity but don't yet run Linux, Bryant says, "I hope they don't all come at once."
The newbs will like it, says Bryant, because "It's a normal user account, so someone can use it for e-mail and mobile work, and see if it's comfortable for day-to-day use."
As for collaborators, "If techie friends want to help guide someone through GNU/Linux applications, Workspot has a remote collaborative feature that lets users see each other's desktops."
Bryant shares a scenario. "Three people, working at three different companies, want to work on a small project together. They get three Workspots, and they start to show each other their current work on their desktops, while they use chat & e-mail to communicate, and webdav to transfer files. No new machines required, and they keep stuff off of their corporate hard drives. It's a GNU-ish version of what WebEx does, I suppose. And -they- have 6,000 customers."
As for the mobile users, Bryant is sure that, given the popularity of webmail, at least a segment of that market would also be interested in having an online desktop. "I know many people who 'program-on-the-side,' or who need to have an Open Office or a Gimp available to them in a pinch -- they're travelling light. Sysdmins need it so they can ssh into their work machines, no matter what PC they have at hand," he says.
Bryant says that although Workspot doesn't have any subscribers yet, the company has plans to initiate an affiliate program. "When surfers click through an affiliate site (one like, let's say, GnuCash's) and register, that site gets 25% of the registration fee. Since many of these projects are already showcased on Workspot, I think this is a sensible and useful way to generate income."
Bryant also dreams of setting up micropayments for new applications or for custom configurations, whereby he says, open source programmers would be able to earn a living. "And they'd get better feedback from users, leading to faster UI improvements," he says.
So, how does Workspot work within the confines of the GNU General Public License? "Well, I'll start with source code. We have no desire to hide code," says Bryant. "If we make changes to anything under GPL, we put it up on http://www.workspot.org.
"VNC gets distributed to users, so this is required under GPL. But if we make a change to, say, Nautilus, we'll post the changes, even though we don't have to -- we're making-believe that GPL has a 'public performance' clause, which I believe it should. Websites don't generally distribute code, so GPL is pretty weak against the privatization of GPL'd web products [unless they're used by millions, like apache].
"The source for everything else you see is available online elsewhere. The glue we've packaged it all together with wouldn't interest people yet -- but we'll divide it up usefully and distribute it under GPL later, with an added public performance clause.
"The use of our servers isn't source code distribution -- and so isn't covered by GPL. It's simply 'use of services.' Hypothetically, if someone gives out their login, against our contract, it would be a breach of contract. But that's just temporary: and unenforced. What I really want is a physical contraint -- just one VNC connection per user. We're implementing that now. Only because, if they want more connections, that means more bandwidth, and that will cost us more money, so the user should have to pay extra for it."
Bryant says that the desktop sessions are not encrypted, and admits that Workspot is not really secure, yet. But he says it is "really hard to snoop. If I was learning or evaluating GNU/Linux applications, or even using them for small jobs, I personally wouldn't care much that some powerful-super-spy-hacker could see it. It's like going for a testdrive -- a semi-public kind of thing.
"But for those moments of privacy, there are several encrypted VNC solutions we're evaluating and implementing this quarter. Once encryption is implemented, people will probably start to see it as a mobile identity. Ximian Evolution on Workspot beats the Hotmail interface -any- day!"
Bryant admits that the target market hasn't quite been convinced yet. "...Our biggest hurdle is just getting people to understand it. Techies do, but until we become a showcase for sub-stable software, which we're planning, it would be kind of a luxury for them to subscribe. Normal people, who'd like to try GNU out, or have it around occasionally, don't really get it, because it's such an unusual beast."
We tried Workspot out and found it fun and interesting. Basically, you surf to workspot.com, login and start your desktop, within the browser. There's also an option to run Workspot straight from vnc, which is supposed to enhance the responsiveness, but for most people, running it from within the browser is easiest. Just make sure you have java installed and enabled.
The GNOME desktop quickly appears, and everything is just as it normally is in the Linux desktop. I had a noticeable lag but it wasn't enough to make the system unusable or even unenjoyable. Your mileage may vary, depending on the amount of RAM and bandwidth you have available.
You get the standard apps - Gimp, OpenOffice.org, games, emacs, etc. I ran Gaim with no problem, but xchat didn't work. There's no sound, and printing is not possible at this point. Neither Evolution nor Kmail were able to connect for me through Workspot. I wouldn't recommend using mail services on Workspot anyway, since it is unsecure.
It is bizarre surfing the 'Net on a browser within a browser, but completely possible. Again, ignoring the fact that it's redundant, I wouldn't do it if it means logging in anywhere.
If you have open source software you'd like to install on your Workspot account, feel free as long as it doesn't have to be system-wide. Understandably, you don't get any root access here. Just for fun, I thought I'd see if I could get java installed and then LimeWire. Downloading java was fun - 17mb in about 4 seconds. But there were glitches in unpacking the file that I couldn't investigate because, no root access. It's just not convenient. Not to mention that java is either not installed on the system or it is just not included in the path (though a cursory look through the /usr directories didn't turn up any java). Probably not a huge deal, unless you want to run java-based applications or you visit any sites with java applets.
If you have Windows friends who want to try out this "insta-Linux" it would probably be worth it to kick down $9.95 for a month's trial. Bryant says its good for programmers too, says he finds himself often with Internet access but without his programming tools, and Workspot comes in handy for that.