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xPUD: Floating On The Cloud

If personal computing is moving to the web, then where are all the lightweight Cloud focused distributions? Meet xPUD, a brilliant little distro that boots straight to a fullscreen browser. It uses a simple, unique interface, and includes everyday software such as a media player and more! We talk with the lead developer about what makes this operating system unique.

Some say that Linux will never come to the desktop, and maybe they are right. Everyday more and more applications are moving online.

There are numerous Cloud storage services, including some bundled with particular distributions.

So if everything is moving to the web, what use is there for a fully blown desktop? Perhaps what is needed is a super fast, lightweight distro to get us there.

These days, lightweight distros are becoming very popular. Previously Linux Magazine has looked at Tiny Core and this week we discover xPUD. It’s a relatively new distribution which aims to be the “shorted path to the cloud”.

The project website reads:

“xPUD is an unique Linux distribution, consisting mainly of a web browser and a media player, with a simple user interface on top. It can turn your computer into a kiosk-like station by leveraging web technologies, making surfing and watching movies as easy as pie.”

That’s right. xPUD is a 50MB distro that in just 10 seconds boots to an easy-to-use interface, ready to go. As you’ll discover however, it’s also much much more!

xpud-default-desktop.jpg

To get some more details, Linux Magazine talked with Ping-Hsun Chen, the lead developer of this amazing project.

Christopher Smart: Could you please tell me a little about yourself? Where do you live, what do you do and what is your relation to the project?

Ping-Hsun Chen: My original name is Ping-Hsun Chen. I’m a 23 year old student living in Taiwan, working on my masters degree (majoring in computer science). I started being a freelancer of web and FOSS development when I was 16.

I’m also the project leader of xPUD. We have a small team of active developers and also a small studio based in Taiwan.

CS: Could you tell us how xPUD started?

Penk: Back to June 2008, we were curious about how small a distro could be if the system contained only a fullscreen web browser.

At first we were trying to use the Ubuntu LiveCD system Casper, and we really pushed it to its limit. Soon after we found that by using ldd and strace utilities we could further strip down the system image size, which later on was extended to the fully featured build system “mkxpud”, and xPUD became a standalone project from the “eXperimental PUD” branch.

CS: What inspires xPUD and makes it unique?

Penk: xPUD is unique in many ways. It’s Linux built around a web browser, combined with an intuitive user interface, generated from the binary-level build system. The result is a small system that boots within 10 seconds, and is functional from the beginning.

We decided to leverage web technologies for the UI framework, because web has so many advantages, such as rapid development. We can quickly sketch a prototype with HTML and jQuery, run some usability tests then go back and keep improving it. We can easily mash-up with existing web services or public API, we also love its platform independent nature.

CS: What does the project hope to achieve?

Penk: We want to be the shortest path to “the Cloud”.

When we’re talking about a “Browser OS”, we imply treating the OS as only a content delivery platform, so that the whole competition is about how to provide that content, i.e., the web.

It’s not just about fast booting, but two things; speed and usability.

The fast-boot-tuning-hype is all wrong, because the end user can wait after power on, while the advanced user doesn’t even shutdown at all! Neither of them can beat the speed of suspend/resume and booting is only part of the user experience.

xPUD targets the speed of both booting and operation, as well as usability, to break down the barrier between hardware clients and web services.

CS: Why should users try xPUD?

Penk: Simply, to have a better user experience.

As we can see, there are many “re-designed” user interfaces for Linux. It’s not because this is the year of desktop Linux, but rather because there are more and more devices which sit between the PC and Smartphone segments, so the usability problem of traditional WIMP (window, icon, menu, pointing device) desktop stands out.

Products like the EeePC Easy Mode, the Ubuntu Netbook Remix with launcher, and more recently Moblin, all got it wrong. Desktop Linux is hard enough, so when you’re adding a launcher too, you’re adding a new layer of user model. That confuses people.

We decided to start from the ground up, doing one thing, and doing it well.

CS: What machines is xPUD designed for? What can users do if their hardware is not supported?

Penk: xPUD comes with built-in support of some netbooks. We’re targeting those devices because the users upon them can see the difference first. It’s still possible to install extra modules however, to have the most comprehensive hardware support just like Ubuntu or Fedora.

CS: What features are coming down the road?

Penk: Some new features like Web App mode and Linux Kernel 2.6.31.2 are already available in the latest snapshot build.

We’ll release D-Bus/JavaScript binding, Opt-Get app store, 3G support and new file browser in the next one or two development versions. You can read the roadmap of xPUD 0.9.5 for more information.

CS: How can users build upon xPUD’s base and install extra applications they might need?

Penk: For technical details, please refer to the “recipe” section of build system.

Worth investigating

xPUD is certainly one distro worth checking out, even if your head isn’t in the clouds. It certainly holds a lot of promise, especially as the web becomes a more attractive place to do every day computing tasks.

Distributions like this might become the default “desktop” of the future. We’re already seeing it in commercial products like SplashTop, but now you can have it all yourself and more, thanks to xPUD.

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