April 18, 2007 9:41 AM PDT

BabelDisc: Linux for technophobes?

A new Linux distribution designed to be as user-friendly as possible went into beta testing Tuesday.

BabelDisc, the brainchild of U.K. Internet pioneer and Pipex founder Peter Dawe, is a lightweight Ubuntu-based distribution that runs only from a CD and does not even require the host PC to have a hard drive, opting instead for subscriber-based hosted storage.

Dawe, speaking to ZDNet UK Wednesday, said BabelDisc was suitable for a variety of users, not the least of whom are technophobes. "It is pretty much designed for people's mothers--certain users want to switch it on and want it always to look the same," he said, noting that many people are scared of computing because unpredictability "undermines their confidence."

"We are targeting the 60 percent of the population that are unhappy using computers," Dawe said, "but some of the other 40 percent will also find our proposition attractive because they're fed up with being the unpaid support engineers for Microsoft."

The disc comes with a variety of preinstalled open-source applications, including Firefox, OpenOffice, Sylpheed (for e-mail), F-Spot (for viewing photos), Xine (for music and video) and Gaim (for instant messaging). Application upgrades are performed automatically at the boot stage. "A lot of the smartness of what we've done is actually removing features," Dawe said. "In our environment, you cannot add another application, as the BabelDisc user doesn't have root privilege--this is to make it as foolproof as possible."

Dawe also claimed that the distribution would find a natural user base in the enterprise environment. "With an awful lot of staff, all they require is access to Web and intranet applications, word processing, e-mail and IM. The BabelDisc service is one where you can just take virtually any old PC made since the year 2000, put the disc in, and that person is instantly up and running."

A critical element of the design is that "you can try Linux at no risk to your Windows installation," Dawe continued. For "virtually all the other Linux distributions, you have to install onto the hard drive. We've actually designed it so you cannot write to the hard drive, (although) you can read from the hard drive, so you can import your files into the BabelDisc environment."

The storage for that environment is hosted in data centers using Rackspace, bought by Dawes, around the world. This element is the core of Dawe's business plan: It requires users to pay $1 per gigabyte per month--the only costs of using BabelDisc.

Asked if business users might be put off by the lack of local storage, Dawe insisted that BabelDisc was "using a very reputable company" as its hosting provider, but conceded that "confidence and trust is something that we have to earn. The best way we can reassure (users) is that half my team here is from the early days of my original company, Pipex."

Pipex is an Internet service provider in the U.K.

The BabelDisc CD also contains software to set up a "BabelBooster"--software installed on a USB hard drive to free up the PC's CD drive and accelerate start-up and performance. Other Linux distributions such as Mandriva are becoming available purely on USB, but Dawe suggested that BabelDisc's continued use of a CD was "a virus protection feature, in that malware cannot write to the CD by definition, so the user always has access to a clean distribution."

But a purely USB-based version of BabelDisc is also in the pipeline, Dawe said, adding that it would be as secure as the CD-based version. He also said that while BabelDisc was suitable as a rescue disk "where someone has a Linux distribution that has gone AWOL," he believes it is likely that "a lot of people won't go back to Windows" after using it.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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11 comments

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Does not make sense
What is the purpose of this distribution? It makes precious little sense to have an Ubuntu-based live CD distro because Ubuntu already does this.
Posted by eBob1 (188 comments )
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Ubuntu is really meant for install
Ubuntu may already due this but it is intended for installation - especially for top performance. Many older PCs do not run well or run very slowly under a Live Ubuntu CD because much of the content must be started from said media...

I am excited to see what happens because I refuse to upgrade to Vista and cannot purchase OS X and run it on my hardware...Plus, I just got my 65-year-old dad interested in Linux :)
Posted by lozeerose (4 comments )
Link Flag
Enterprise
If Babeldisc could be configured to:

a) Custom set of software, i.e. My enterprise setup
and
b) Use storage on my servers (still not local disk)
and
c) Boot from my servers instead of a CD

then we'd have a real enterprise edition. This would go great with diskless / network PC's.

Steve G.
Posted by aureolin (52 comments )
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Enterprise
Think of this scenario:
1. You create a custom set up for your company...
2. Purchase a bunch of USB drives (Costco sell a 4-pack of 512Mb drives for like $30) and you selectively distribute the OS to users...
3. Keep old PCs running and recycle others if you need new ones...
4. Save a bunch of money...
Posted by lozeerose (4 comments )
Link Flag
Some elements worth considering
You'll find a lot of skepticism from experienced computer users, but as the man said, it's made to market to technophobes. The security side, a disk running incorruptable proprietary software, may actually be the more important piece of this. It also does away with the need for an IT specialist in a small shop since you're not maintaining a network. I'm not sure how much market there may be for this, but everyone with an idea should have their chance to take a shot at it.
Posted by Razzl (1318 comments )
Link Flag
The real problem
Yes kubuntu has a cd and it works fine.however,having two computers i wanted one linux o/s and one windows.when you use grub on installing kubuntu my 2 HD's became ONE.evidently partitioned when i installed to my HD.i had to use partition magic to get the 2 HD's again.also,
i worked for at&t when C and AWK and UNIX were being developed.the problem is linux,unix and any other ix's think that a lot of stuff is transparent and it is NOT.otherwise everybody would use linux,unix etc because it is a better os.
Posted by desanti (1 comment )
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Live CD Linux Already Available
For those a little more adventurous there is a Linux distribution that runs off ram already available. It is called Puppy Linux (www.puppylinux.org) and works very well. The down side is that it is not as user friendly as Ubuntu but it 90 percent there...
Posted by lozeerose (4 comments )
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Am I getting this correctly?
This disk turns a PC into a network appliance (Audrey2?) that saves everything on a rackspace account that the user 'rents' for $1/Gb/mo? And the 'owner' of the machine doesn't even have root privileges, so they're basically a tenant on their own machine?
It gives multiple meanings to the term 'client hardware' if as soon as you stop paying, you own a brick!
Posted by punterjoe (163 comments )
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LAN storage server needed
Someone needs to make a LAN storage server, perhaps running on a CD too, so users don't need to access storage from the Internet. An option to save to USB will also be a good idea.

Aside from the payment problem, there are also issues of Internet failures, etc. These are pretty common in the third world.
Posted by Maccess (610 comments )
Link Flag
Ubuntu is easy to use.
If your so dumb you can't use the simple Ubuntu then you should
not even use a computer.
Posted by ferretboy88 (676 comments )
Reply Link Flag
almost there
Use a CD-R for the O/S and tools, and a flash disk for personal storage (settings, word processing files). Or, if the PC supports it, have the whole distribution and personal files on the flash disk.
Posted by D McKinnon (1 comment )
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