Splashy Booting

A couple of days ago, I wrote about efforts by PC and BIOS vendors to speed up the process by which PCs are started, initialized, and booted with an operating system.   Now Ars Technica has an article on an alternative approach to the start-up problem, Splashtop®, produced by a company called DeviceVM.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the total time it takes to start up your PC includes both the time required for the BIOS firmware to run, and the time to load and initialize the operating system  What Splashtop does is to combine some speed improvements in the BIOS with a slimmed-down version of the Linux operating system (plus selected applications), in order to present the user with a start-up options screen within a few seconds.  In the existing Splashtop offering, for example, one can choose to start up a Web browser, a music player, or a photo manager, running in the Linux environment; or one can choose to go ahead and boot the primary operating system.  In essence, a Splashtop system is a dual-boot system, with one OS being the specialized Linux version, and the other being a more conventional OS (either Windows or Linux is possible, for example).  The Splashtop system may have part or all of the minimal Linux kernel in flash memory, to speed up booting.

As a point of reference, the Acer laptop on which I am writing this is set up as a dual-boot system, with Ubuntu Linux and Windows Vista (ugh!).  The OS choice is made from a menu presented by the GRUB boot loader, which is displayed as soon as the BIOS is done.  On this machine, in 10 tries starting with the power off, the mean time from pressing the power-on switch to getting the GRUB menu was eight seconds, with a standard deviation of less than one second.   Getting from the GRUB menu to the graphical (KDE) Linux login screen took an average of 56 seconds, with a standard deviation of about 3.5 seconds; most of that time is used in starting the graphical environment (the X Window system and KDE).  As for Vista … let me just say that, even in my advanced state of decrepitude,  I can probably run at least half a mile in the time it takes to start.  (I can definitely get and drink a cup of coffee.)

Now DeviceVM is introducing a new version of Splashtop that is intended for business customers.

The business version introduces a new e-mail client that is designed to sync with an instance of Microsoft Outlook that is installed on the computer’s Windows partition. It supports synchronization of e-mail, tasks, calendaring, and contacts. Another key feature in the business version is support for connecting to remote desktops via RDP or with client software for Citrix and VMware.

The business version also incorporates an interface to the Web-based Zoho productivity tools, so that users of the Splashtop environment can work with Microsoft Office® documents, for example.  DeviceVM also says that the Splashtop environment has additional reliability advantages:

DeviceVM says Splashtop has other advantages too, in addition to swift startup. For example, the company touts it as a fully functional fallback environment that users can rely on in the event that their regular Windows installation becomes unusable.

The company’s Web site also has a front-page blurb that says, “With Splashtop, you surf the Web safely, immune from malware that  targets Windows.”   DeviceVM CEO Mark Lee said in a statement,  “Even if Windows crashes or is infected by a virus or malware, Splashtop for Business gets users back online quickly to access corporate email, data, and applications.”

The idea of this is intriguing, and seems to have definite appeal.  The PC maker Dell, which has committed to shipping systems with Splashtop for Business, also has a new notebook offering, the Latitude Z600, which uses a similar approach to quick start-up:

The first idea, Latitude ON, announced over a year ago but fully debuting on the Z600, is basically a instant-boot OS combined with a self-contained system-on-a-daughter-card. The OS is Linux-based with a bunch of Dell customizations to both the OS and the applications (browser, mail, contacts, calendar, VPN client, and Citrix client)

I like to see companies trying to do a bit of innovative thinking, rather than just producing another “me too” laptop or other PC.  But I’m a bit bemused, too.  I have a laptop that is “immune from malware that targets Windows”, is extremely reliable, and that restarts from sleep mode in a handful of seconds.  Even though Windows is installed on the hard disk, it really is pretty easy to live with, as long as I don’t try to do anything crazy — like run it,

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