Jolicloud and Netbooks

Jolicloud LoginI finally got my invite to Jolicloud Tuesday and promptly installed it on a VM for some geeky fun.

I first heard about Jolicloud from Rick Turoczy, who wanted to put it on his new netbook. Jolicloud is a remixed Ubuntu distro, looks like Netbook Remix, that brings an iPhone-like O/S interface to your netbook.

I don’t have a netbook (more on that later), but I was curious to see how the idea of the simplicity of an iPhone interface would work on a netbook O/S.

If you remember, when the iPhone debuted in June 2007, I compared it to the OLPC. The iPhone has always been a computer that makes phone calls–better at interwebs than modded PDAs with a way better form-factor than itty-bitty laptops, ahem netbooks.

This assessment came before the App Store and scads of apps made the iPhone even more an ultra-portal computer that makes phone calls.

Jolicloud is meant for install from a USB stick, so I had to do some digging to get it installed as a VM in VirtualBox. Luckily, someone had already documented the how-tos.Once installed, Jolicloud offers a minimal interface with a dashboard you can use to find other Jolicloud users (yeah, it’s another social network), which I suppose is useful to see what apps they’ve installed.

After you install, you’ll want to add some applications. Jolicloud has a app store of sorts, with stuff like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, GMail, Google Reader, all the usual web apps.

Jolicloud Applications

Installing them adds them to the menus you’ll find on the left-hand menu, which is the same as the Applications menu in Ubuntu. You can then add these apps to your Favorites dashboard for easy access.

Jolicloud Favorites

The apps aren’t really apps in the classic sense; they’re just standalone browser windows, similar to what you can do with Mozilla Prism, might be just that under the covers. Not sure if the Jolicloud team will create true apps (or open up to developers) in the future. They’re on in alpha now, so it’s possible.

I messed around with Reader for a bit, posted to Twitter, but that’s pretty much the extent of my testing so far.

Overall, I like the design paradigm of an app store with a dashboard for launching apps. The UI is nice, but power users will be disappointed they can’t control the updates and other settings. I tried to install the VirtualBox Additions, but couldn’t because they require a higher version of the Linux kernel.

This model of control works well for netbooks, and Jolicloud has bundled the necessary drivers into the install process by asking which model you’re using. Driver support issues are a constant problem for Linux distros, but the Jolicloud team addresses this with these bundles and with targeted updates. Seems smart.

I’m interested to see how they progress, especially as the interface evolves. Their approach may be the way to mainstream success for Linux, i.e. customized distros for specific hardware configurations, with updates controlled to prevent incompatibilities. Of course, this approach creates cascading dependencies and further fractures the development, e.g. the Ubuntu Netbook Remix distro could probably benefit from the work done by Jolicloud. Ideally, they’re contributing fixes to the main branch.

If you’re interested in Jolicloud, head over and get on their invite list and pester them on Twitter @jolicloud.

Anyway, even though I dig Jolicloud and what they’re doing, I’m still not convinced about the utility of netbooks and tablets. A couple people, who I know have laptops, have recently bought netbooks. When I asked why, they usually say it’s a toy or something to that effect. Not exactly a rousing endorsement.

So, what are the main benefits of a netbook? Small and portable, some have a 3G network card on board, anything else?

Set aside the fact that my Macbook isn’t tough to carry around for a minute. Portability is great until you have to use the tiny keyboard and screen. I love watching netbook users hunch over their little keyboards and squint at the screen.

OK, so what if I don’t want to carry my laptop, how about compared to the iPhone (or Android phone, Pre, Blackberry)? The only win here is the keyboard. I’ve never liked the soft keypad on the iPhone, but I’m used to it now. I have personal issues with thumb-based keyboards (namely big thumbs), but I’ve seen people flying on those. Check out any teenager texting.

Netbooks fall into a gray area for me, too big to carry in my pocket, too small to do real work comfortably.

Maybe someone can enlighten me in comments.




  1. “too big to carry in my pocket, too small to do real work comfortably.”
    For me the smartphones are too big for a phone, and too small for a computer. At least with a netbook, there's the option of plugging in a larger monitor (and keyboard) if they are available. If Apple ever did enter the netbook market, I'd bet it is packaged with a dock with a full size monitor/keyboard/DVD drive.

  2. Netbook, schmetbook. The Jolicloud people need to get with the Amazon people and port this thing to the Kindle. Still too big for a pocket, though, I guess, unless it's an overcoat pocket or something.

    I like the idea netbooks, but every time I look at them I end p dismissing them as woefully underpowered for my needs. Maybe I don't travel enough to make the lightweight aspect worth the tradeoff. I like to be able to do as much of my work and recreational computing as possible from one machine, and netbooks just wouldn't cut it as a primary computing platform for me.

    I do see netbooks as useful for the less-geeky crowd, though, particularly frequent travellers (salespeople, journalists, etc). Every bit of weight you can shave off the bag that's bumping against your hip as you dash for the next plane has to help. Browser, cloud-based and/or local office apps, and you're done.

  3. Smartphones are too big for you? You must be a big dude. My iPhone has pretty much the same form factor as the Razr I had before it and previous phone-only-phones.

    The Apple tablet rumor says they're taking that approach to enter the netbook market, which makes sense, I suppose. While simultaneously trying to take Kindle's marketshare too.

    I'm not buying the option to plug a netbook into a monitor and keyboard b/c doesn't that defeat the portability argument? I guess it depends on who's buying it, but from what I've seen, netbooks are toys not people's only computer.

  4. I just don't see it for any serious work that involves typing. Can you imagine the wrist pain after typing a story or answering an RFP?

    I've only seen netbooks around the way as geek toys, *another* computer, not the primary one. I think they pitch them as just that, which limits the device and the market.

    The smartphone fits into a much larger market. I dunno. I missed the boat I guess.

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