It's not exactly how devotees foresaw Linux reaching mass-market desktop PCs, but it could be a turning point nonetheless. Taiwanese giant Asus is to embed DeviceVM's Splashtop Linux on millions of mainstream motherboards.
Splashtop is the polar opposite of the philosophy that created Windows. Loading from cold in a claimed 10 seconds from a flash chip on the motherboard, it is designed to run a small suite of basic applications. These currently include a version of the Firefox browser, a Skype and instant messaging app, and even a photo viewer.
Marketed by Asus under the 'Express Gate' banner, the software will turn up on the new P5Q Deluxe, P5Q-WS, P5Q3 Deluxe, and P5Q-E series motherboards expected to appear this quarter. The company says it will produce a million per month once production has ramped up.
"In response to great user feedback, our plan is to proliferate Express Gate across our entire motherboard product portfolio, starting with over one million motherboards per month," Joe Hsieh of ASUS was quoted as saying. "Consumers want to turn their PCs on and off like any other appliance, and Express Gate has made that possible."
Anyone using an Express Gate PC is asked if they want to load the environment before the main OS loads, seconds after hitting the power button. This is the clever part of its design. It doesn't replace Windows outright, merely complements it.
The software originally debuted on Asus motherboards last October, but this is the first mass launch, and is rated as the most significant moment for the environment. The secret of Splashtop's super-fast loading is its tight integration with the BIOS, small footprint, and low power consumption - which could see it turn up in laptop computers. It also supports connectivity such as Wi-Fi if that is built into the motherboard, as it would be on laptops.
Splashtop is not the only such product on the market. A year ago, BIOS vendor Phoenix Technology launched HyperSpace, an equivalent that has yet to turn up on PCs in any numbers. Microsoft's view on the movement to embed cut-down operating systems is not known, but Phoenix did launch a pre-emptive strike against it to stop it blocking HyperSpace using restrictive Vista end-user license agreements (EULAs). Microsoft relented.
Asus itself is also an advocate of Linux, having pioneered the cut-down Linux laptop and PC phenomenon in the form of the famous Eee PC, whose sales have been rising.
As motherboards go, a million units a month is relatively small beer - Asus ships tens of millions of these in a year. But, equally, the stated intention of rolling this technology out across its entire motherboard line is bound to prove hugely influential if it comes to pass.
Although Splashtop won't trouble Vista take-up in the short term, in the longer run it could drive demand for a very different way of using PCs, one that today's Vista will find extremely hard to match. Small, quick-booting, and sporting most applications that users actually buy PCs to use, it could fracture the idea that to work effectively, operating systems for desktops must be slow, large, complex, and therefore prone to software vulnerabilities.