Zonbu: Ethical Computing

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 22, 2008

zonbu.jpgA while back, my wife’s computer went kaput. For a while we both used my laptop, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to do so. Unfortunately, we’re not at a place to buy a new laptop. Even buying a decent desktop for a few hundred bucks or more was out of our reach. So, in December, my wife and I began a technological adventure: we bought a Zonbu. What, pray tell, is a Zonbu?

Zonbu is a small form factor pc that is flash based, web-based, and utilizes a Linux distro (open sourced).  It is a radical departure from my previous computing experiences. Instead of utilizing powerful hardware, the Zonbu streamlines your computing experience. It only has 512MB of Ram and 4G of flash storage. Yep, you heard me–only 4G of flash storage. And to make matters worse, you cannot install any new software. So, for $100 up front and $15/month for two years, you get a weak computer with limited software–sounds like a crappy deal, right?

But wait! There’s more. Here’s what Zonbu has going for it:

  • My little Zonbu uses 1/3 the energy of the standard light-bulb (which compared to a standard computer saves us about 9 bucks in electricity).
  • Included within the subscription is 100G of Amazon S3 Server space. The computer is regularly backing up its 4G of flash memory onto the Server space. And so, with a high speed connection, you can use the 100G of storage as a virtual hard drive.
  • Though you can’t install new software, the Zonbu system has almost every program you’d need. Its got the full Open Office Suite, a Linux version of Adobe Photoshop, Skype, Firefox and more! And because these are all open source or free, you don’t have to pay anything extra.
  • They update the software automatically, so that it is always up-to-date and functioning properly.
  • They back-up your information for you. No more massive data loss!
  • For as long as you maintain your subscription (which is $15/month…but with the energy savings is more like $6 a month) your hardware is covered. If anything happens, they fix it or replace it. And with all of your data saved online, you can be up-and-running without a hiccup.

So, what Zonbu offers is hassle-free computing for the regular user. It is cost-effective. And unless your a gamer or serious graphics user, it gets the job done. It is perfect computer for the family or for the student. They even have a laptop version for $279.

Some of you are thinking “wow, that sounds cool.” Others of you are thinking “what a gimmicky piece of crap!”

I can appreciate both perspectives. But hold your final judgement; I haven’t shared my major reasons for getting the Zonbu:

  1. I think the business model is great, and would love for Zonbu to succeed. Web-based, subscription-based computing is something that needs to be explored further. And if Zonbu does well, they are likely to be bought-out by a larger company (like Gateway or Dell) and then we’ll see improvements and increased diversity of platforms.
  2. I’m a fan of open-source software. And I think that Zonbu goes much farther than most companies at offering a user-friendly Linux system.
  3. The green computing may be just a gimmick, but I’m impressed. Saving on energy costs and lowering my “carbon footprint” makes this an attractive system. And they use carbon offsetting to make the hardware carbon-neutral.
  4. I love the simplicity of the system. I love that it limits me. I love that I can’t waste tons of money on entertainment software and other crap.

Zonbu allows me to do computing in a way that affirms my ethical sensibilities: it embraces open-sourcing, is enviromentally friendly, encourages simplicity, and is relatively inexpensive.

for further reading . . .

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8 Responses to “Zonbu: Ethical Computing”

  1. Jonathan Brink on January 22nd, 2008 1:56 pm

    Mark, I agree with you. There is something interesting to products that don’t include all the bells and whistles. The limiting is actually freeing in a lot of ways.

  2. matt on January 23rd, 2008 7:52 am

    Do you really save any money? That subscription fee can add up and you are totally locked into it. Not being able to install any new software can become an issue. It is a good second computer but as your only computer there could be some isses

  3. Mark Van Steenwyk on January 23rd, 2008 9:46 am

    I think so. In two years, my total spent will be $460 total. During that time, I estimate that I will have saved over $200 in electricity. And I won’t have spent a single extra dollar on software or service fees. So that is $260 on computing for two years. Are there limitations? Sure. But I’ve never spent so little over a two year span on a computer.

    To be fair, this is a home based system that is being used primarily by my wife, while I will still use my laptop. So we have a way around limitations in a pinch. I don’t know if I’d use Zonbu as my only system. But it works great as a second system in a household.

  4. Stew on January 28th, 2008 4:57 am

    Hi guys. I work for the company that designed the silicon inside the Zonbu, VIA Technologies. We’re very proud of the Zonbu. It’s an excellent example of what we see as the future of modern computing - power efficient devices that do what their designed to do without heating up the room or taking up half your workspace.

    I did a series of videos about the Zonbu, highlighting its unique approach to home computing generally. Take look.

    BTW I liked the article Mark. Simplicity is an underestimated in this industry. Nice to see some people get it.



  5. Ariah Fine on January 28th, 2008 12:09 pm

    Does it really cost $8 a month to power my laptop?

    And what about just putting linux on an old computer? Less production that way.

  6. Mark Van Steenwyk on January 28th, 2008 12:16 pm

    Thanks Stew.

    Ariah, that depends upon your computer. I believe the $8 a month was for desktops. I’m not sure how much energy a laptop uses.

    Sure, using linux on an old system is a good way to go. I went this direction because of the low learning curve for Amy, for the hassle free approach, because i wanted to support the company, and other reasons. I have installed linux on old machines before and there were problems getting it to recognize the hardware. The new distros are much much better though.

  7. Ariah Fine on January 28th, 2008 12:44 pm

    Cool. I find it interesting and might think about it at some point

  8. Ariah Fine on February 6th, 2008 11:26 am

    regarding energy cost:

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