Rise of The Firebox

Yesterday, we got a Zonbu box, a sleek device that arrived in the mail. My first reaction on turning it on was “This is totally silent”. I was determined to detect that wee-bit of sound, may be a little fan or a disk purring somewhere deep inside – I kept it close to the ear, but heard nothing but total silence. Only when you experience the Zonbu, you realize just how much we have been conditioned to expect a computer to make those sounds, and how valuable total silence is. Zonbu says this device is extremely power efficient – another reason to love it.

Before I turn this post into an ode to silence, let me come to my main point. Let me define Firebox to be a device that is designed to run Firefox well. Zonbu is a great Firebox. So is the Asus EEE PC. They run Linux, but the main work is done through the pre-installed Firefox. These come in varying form factors, ranging from small boxes on the desktop to ultra-light portables. Eventually, they will likely come in the iPod form factor too, which would be my preferred configuration. I would like the ability to plug-in an external monitor or keyboard (USB?) in that iPod configuration, so that I am not limited by the screen size. Better still, perhaps a tiny projector could be embedded, along with a virtual keyboard, so that a full keyboard and display are supported, with no additional hardware.

I love the Firebox computing model (yeah, big surprise!). Even now, I normally work on 3 different computers, one a big-screen desktop at work, one laptop and an old PC I keep around at home for testing but I end up using extensively, because it is always on, ready to go. That old PC is still useful mainly because it runs Firefox well. Whenever Raju would let me, I also use a drop-dead gorgeous Mac, which is his main computer. When the Zonbu arrived, within minutes, I was accessing my documents in Zoho – I have a feeling I am going to be spending a lot of time with the Zonbu Firebox, as I have named the device.

Zonbu & Asus EEE PC point to a broader trend; the rise of web applications go hand-in-hand with the rise of such Fireboxes, which most mobiles will be in due course. When these devices break the $100 barrier (the Zonbu already has a $99 price point, with a subscription agreement), perhaps even the $50 barrier, expect mass adoption, particularly in emerging markets. What the $1000 PC did in the US is what the $100 Firebox will do in India. India now has over 250 million mobile phone subscribers. Every one of them is a potential Firebox user in future. Somehow I seriously doubt the $100 Firebox user is going to shell out $300+ for an office suite.

It is an exciting time to be in this industry.

(Update: Krish points out in his comment that Novatium, a Chennai based company is doing something very similar. Their price point is just a little over $100 too. Thanks, Krish!)

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