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Linux-friendly ASP surfaces
(IDG) -- You're scheduled to give a make-it-or-break-it presentation to a venture capital firm at 8 a.m. on Tuesday. So you're up all night Monday creating your slides using StarOffice Impress. By the time you finish, you realize you don't even have a minute to copy them to your laptop (which has a nearly dead battery anyway) and still make yourself presentable. Oh well. A little later, you're a block from the VC's office, when you remember that you didn't save the last bunch of changes you made, and your cleaning service people always manage to knock your PC's power plug out of the wall socket when they vacuum on Tuesdays. Are you feeling like a complete loser yet? Au contraire. When you get to the VC's office, you open a Web browser on one of their Macs, log in to your virtual workspace, save the presentation file, and run that slide show. Applause (and piles of cash) follows.
WorkSpot, a startup that's been quietly lurking on the Net in beta mode for the last several months, is the application service provider that made that miracle possible. The groovy thing about WorkSpot is that the applications it provides are Linux applications, and you can control them in your personal Linux desktop from any Internet-connected platform running any major desktop operating system. WorkSpot is still very much in beta, but it's already highly functional. The full service, according to WorkSpot CEO Kathy Giori, will be in place by summer. And, thanks to a March 20 Slashdot posting about WorkSpot (See Resources), the company has engaged in a productive dialogue with the Linux community.
Being Slashdotted significantly upped the number of requests for WorkSpot accounts (which are free during the beta period). It can now take as long as two weeks to get a login. So here, courtesy of News Lint Labs, is a glimpse at what's there.
When you connect to the WorkSpot server via your user account, you have the nonexclusive choice of working on an HTML desktop or a Linux desktop. The HTML desktop is a clean little interface, suitable for low-bandwidth connections, that lets you manage the files that you keep on your desktop: you can create files and folders; view and navigate your folder hierarchy; delete, copy, rename, and move files; edit text files; and send files by fax or email. (Both of the latter two functions worked impeccably. The fax, which uses Fax4Free.com, arrived within seconds.) The HTML desktop also provides a simple and intuitive dialog for uploading files from your local system.
The Linux desktop option is the heart of the service: a KDE desktop on top of the Debian distribution, complete with a number of the applications that come with KDE and Debian, including the GIMP image-editing powerhouse. StarOffice is also available, and though you have to do the install yourself, WorkSpot walks you through it. There's nothing to prevent you from installing more applications, even a window manager other than KDE, provided installation doesn't require root access and the licensing is kosher. You can just upload what you need from your local system or simply launch Netscape from within your workspace (yes, using a browser within your browser) and download directly from a source location on the Net.
You can actually build multiple Linux desktops (a maximum of two during the beta period) of varying sizes, color depths, and screen resolutions -- and they are your very own. You can kill and recreate desktops at will; otherwise, they remain active from one session to the next. This is a feature, not a no-no: a desktop remains exactly as you've left it. Even if a bomb were to hit your local PC during a working session, the applications and files in which you were working would still be open and totally unaffected, and your configuration would still be intact.
Other WorkSpot goodies include your own cgi-enabled Website and email account. The feature perhaps most conspicuous by its absence is printing support, but Giori assured me it's on the way.
The technology underlying WorkSpot is VNC (Virtual Network Computing), an open source (GPLed) remote-display system that AT&T Laboratories Cambridge developed as a software-only version of its thin-client computers. (WorkSpot has already released the source code for its modifications to VNC and is preparing to open the code to its entire package.) VNC lets you access a desktop environment via the Internet, using a Java-enabled Web browser, and it is truly platform-independent. Native VNC clients, which you can download from the VNC Website, are also available for Windows and Unix, and they function with WorkSpot. The native client only accesses the Linux desktop; there's nothing to prevent you, though, from running it side by side with the browser version to get to your HTML desktop or mailbox at the same time.
As you might expect, the joys of working with WorkSpot are directly proportional to the available Internet bandwidth. The mobility you have with the Java client is great, but the native VNC client is faster. However, the speed gain with the native client was -- contrary to expectation -- more pronounced at higher, not lower, bandwidths. With a 600+ Kbps DSL connection, displaying a 104 KB.JPEG image in the GIMP took 12 seconds via the VNC viewer, compared to 52 seconds with the browser client. With a 28.8 Kbps dialup connection, the same task took 2 minutes and 21 seconds with a browser and 1 minute and 53 seconds with the native viewer. Keyboard and mouse responsiveness from the remote desktop at that speed was just short of excruciating with the native client and actually somewhat better with the browser. At DSL speed, on the other hand, it's quite sprightly both ways.
The brains behind WorkSpot
WorkSpot CEO Kathy Giori and her cofounders did what a lot of workers only fantasize about: they conceived a business idea with a group of trusted friend-coworkers and left their jobs at Sony's ETAK division to start the new venture. Giori, an electrical engineer by training ("I wouldn't call myself a hardcore hacker," she said), believes that leadership is her natural role. During her time at ETAK and for several years before, she successfully managed large software projects. Giori credits the San Francisco Bay Area's Forum for Women Entrepreneurs with helping her make the jump from project lead to company boss. "It's an incredible resource of women who support each other," she said.
Giori also stressed the benefits of starting a company with people whose capabilities you know and admire. Cofounders Gal Cohen, Greg Bryant, and Curtis Brune bring some big-time high-tech expertise to the table. A recent key addition to the team, Michelle Kraus is WorkSpot's executive vice president for business development. Who does Giori hope will become the mainstay of WorkSpot's customer base? Right now, she said, "the best market for us to go out and explore these possibilities is really the Linux community." After establishing a presence in the Linux community, she said the company hopes to grow into both the consumer and business markets. WorkSpot has shown that it's very interested in responding to the community's needs. The various questions, suggestions, and complaints Slashdot readers raised in the March 20 discussion elicited an almost instantaneous -- as well as a remarkably thorough and defensiveness-free -- response on the WorkSpot site. If WorkSpot's tech support turns out to be equally responsive, that is a good sign indeed.
Giori expects business world interest to come from small businesses that don't have their own IT infrastructure in-house, yet want the same benefits. Using WorkSpot, "they can just use old equipment as thin clients," Giori said. The company's revenue model is still in the works, but one likely plan is to have businesses pay for the service only after they exceed a certain bandwidth. WorkSpot also intends to generate revenue by renting commercial applications. Users will be able to pay just a fraction of the license fees for high-priced apps that they prefer to not buy. "Maybe there's a high-end mathematical analysis package, let's say, that you'd like to run. Maybe you'd pay a small subscription or pay only as you use it -- and you wouldn't have to do the installation," Giori explained.
Giori hopes that open source developers will see a benefit in making their applications available for WorkSpot rental. "We're hoping that the open source community recognizes that open source projects could host its software as a service on WorkSpot and gain some revenue," she said. It could certainly provide a venue for users to try out new open source apps quickly and painlessly.
Do you think WorkSpot can hit the spot for you? Whether or not you've had a chance to try it out, I'll bet you have an opinion, so send it along to the discussion forum.
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