It looks like Asus is going to be shipping all its motherboards from here on out with Linux built right in, as part of their “Express Gate” initiative. Express Gate is a custom Linux distribution (Splashtop Linux) installed to a Flash ROM that’s a part of the motherboard. With Express Gate, Asus users have an option of booting from that built-in ROM chip to a Linux-based desktop, with an average boot time of around 5 seconds or so.
The problem with Express Gate isn’t that it’s Linux nor that it’s there – it’s the rather more-mysterious question of why it’s there in the first place. If ASUS had thought to make use of this Linux distribution to provide data recovery & diagnostics services, offer advanced BIOS configuration and updating options, or one of the infinite other creative ideas that one can manage with a light and fully-configurable OS that ships embedded with the motherboard, perhaps then we could see a use for it.
Instead, ASUS has opted to ship Express Gate with a Firefox-based web-browser and Skype (out of all things). Again, it’s not a matter of having something against either Firefox or Skype; but just the general lack of context for their being there. These days, a web browser is a means to an end. You don’t use it to browse the web, you use it to interact with the web. A web browser on a Live CD-like Linux installation isn’t as useful nor as productive as the web browser sitting on the desktop of your main OS, be it Windows or Linux.
ASUS’s major selling point is that Splashtop takes 5-seconds to load at most. If you stop and think about, it’s only impressive because it’s being taken out of context. 5 seconds is fast, but just how often do you need quick access to Skype and your computer isn’t already on? Most of us turn our PCs on and off once a day at most – and there are many that prefer to hibernate, standby, or just leave it on indefinitely.
While a “5-second desktop environment” is a highly-desirable feature, a “5-second basic desktop environment without the programs, applications and documents you need” isn’t.
At the end of the day, ASUS has an idea that has a lot of potential but isn’t being directed correctly. That spare desktop has a lot of room for usefulness and productivity, but a primitive web-surfing environment just isn’t one of them. Until Express Gate features a more-compelling feature set, it’s just another one of those PR initiatives. By “more-compelling” we mean “more exclusive” with applications and products that just won’t work as well on your usual OS (like the BIOS management and system recovery options we listed above), otherwise there isn’t any incentive to forgo the extra 10 seconds it takes to get into your real OS.
Express Gate was originally used as a way to get people to spend the extra cash for the higher-level motherboards costing a couple of hundred bucks extra, and now it’s being used to get people to choose ASUS over similarly-featured contenders. That wouldn’t normally be a problem – after all, extra features is always a great reason to choose one board over another – except in this case, it’s just fluff.
All that being said, it certainly is great to see that Linux has finally reached a level of prevalence where major motherboard manufacturers will consider making it a part and parcel of every board they sell – a kind of perverse play on all the anti-trust violations Microsoft has been accused of by convincing OEMs to ship all PCs with Windows from the get-go. And it’s important not to forget the role ASUS has played in bringing Linux to the masses in the past year – from the brilliantly-viral Eee to Express Gate, Asus has definitely done a lion’s share of work in making Linux as common-place as the PC itself. Hopefully future revisions of Express Gate can find a better use for Splashtop Linux and warrant a kinder review.