Image: Example desktop running the SplashTop environment
I just got off the horn with David Speiser and Sol Lipman of DeviceVM, a San Jose-based company who is promoting their new "SplashTop" platform, an instant-on embedded environment that will first be featured in the upcoming Asus "P5E3 WiFi" motherboard. (If you aren't a build-your-own-PC type, desktop and laptops with SplashTop options should be available in Q1 of next year.)
SplashTop is an embedded Linux environment that runs off flash memory (currently 512MB) to present a workable web environment in around five seconds after you push the power button. Currently "workable" means a customized variant of Firefox (with some plug-ins, saved cookies, and bookmarks but no user-added plug-ins) and Skype, the voice-over-IP platform.
The idea is not to replace Vista or Linux as desktop OSes, but to provide a quick way to check email or make a call without fully booting into your primary operating system. Think checking your email in the morning, then powering back down, or even booting from SplashTop into Windows.
The entire environment runs off the flash memory, not your hard drive, so it should be extremely secure. (Although updates to the SplashTop firmware are currently done through a Windows-based tool, so it's obviously not totally isolated from the rest of the system; still, I don't think an embedded Linux to Vista attack is going to be a big worry.)
There is currently no way to launch SplashTop from an already-loaded Windows desktop. Speiser and Lipman asked me why I would want to do that. I wasn't entirely sure, except that sometimes Vista freaks out when I just need to look something up in Firefox, so it might be nice to have an ejector seat into SplashTop when Vista starting sputtering and smoking. That may be coming in future updates, they said.
Other applications besides Firefox and Skype may be coming, too, but they will currently be handled through DeviceVM's walled gate. Users will not be able to rewrite and upload their own versions of the SplashTop environment. Even though the SplashTop OS is open source, the hardware and its ability to be updated are locked. Both Speiser and Lipman recognized that was an issue, especially for a hardware platform that could use a boost from user-generated applications, but passed the buck to the OEMs, who they implied required the software locks. "We don't have full control working with an OEM," were Speiser's words. Whoever is to blame, it's a stupid policy; DeviceVM seemed amenable to changing it, but since they're currently at the mercy of the equipment manufacturers, hinted that vocal online statements might help their case.
Let me do my part: hardware platforms that don't allow users to alter the software—especially when they run Linux!—are slimy. And in this case, especially dumb and counter to extending the platform. I'm sure there are lots of hackers out there who would find great ways to tweak an instant-on embedded OS.
That nastiness aside, I look forward to dinking around with the platform. It may not be all-powerful, but that's not the point: From cold boot to the web in five seconds is a good thing.
An aside: If you're wondering why the Asus variety is called "Express Gate Powered by SplashTop," it's because 1) Asus sucks at branding; 2) They want to hedge their bets in case SplashTop is a success but they want to switch vendors in the future. (Neither are based on anything DeviceVM said to me—just an observation.)
Company Page [SplashTop.com]