jolicloud - another Linux for Netbooks

No sooner had I written my blurb on Netbook Linux than I came across another alternative, Jolicloud. I had a quick look at their web page, it makes a good first impression, and the descriptions on it sound promising, so I decided to give it a try (things seldom get boring around here).
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

No sooner had I written my blurb on Netbook Linux than I came across another alternative, Jolicloud. I had a quick look at their web page, it makes a good first impression, and the descriptions on it sound promising, so I decided to give it a try (things seldom get boring around here). So, after about an hour of work, I had this on my ASUS N10J netbook:

Jolicloud preBeta

It doesn't take much looking at that image, or browsing of their web site, before you realize that Jolicloud is a derivative of the Ubuntu Netbook Remix. That has good and bad aspects - good, because you could hardly choose a better, and more stable, base to build on; bad, because it has all of the hardware restrictions and requirements inherent in UNR, particularly for advanced graphic (3D/GL) support, which means that it works quite well on Intel Atom-based netbooks with Intel 945/950 chipsets, but for most AMD/ATI/nVidia-based netbooks you have to be willing and able to download and install proprietary graphic drivers to make it usable, and for VIA-based netbooks you're basically out of luck. That may sound a bit restrictive, but the fact is that the vast majority of netbooks on the market today are Atom-based (ASUS, Acer, HP, Lenova, and so on), so it's going to be just fine in most cases.

Furthermore, the current Jolicloud pre-Beta distribution is based on a pre-Karmic version of Ubuntu Netbook Remix. Look at the screen shot again, and compare it to the Karmic UNR screens in my previous blog post about netbook Linux, and you can see the difference. There is some discussion in the Jolicloud blog about a new UI coming soon, but it isn't clear whether they will be moving to a Karmic UNR base, or they are making their own desktop - I suspect the latter, but I have seen very little concrete information so far.

There are two approaches to downloading and installing Jolicloud. The one which they seem to prefer is "Jolicloud Express", which installs into a running Windows system - I assume it uses wubi, but my objective is to get rid of Windows, not work within it, so I didn't pursue this at all. Of course, their objective is to get it onto as many netbooks as possible, with as little pain as possible, so this approach is probably a good idea for them. The other way to get Jolicloud is to download an ISO image, use it to create a bootable CD, USB or Flash drive, and either run that as a Live image, or install it from there. There are utility programs in the Jolicloud download area to accomplish this on Windows, MacOS or Linux. Hmm. So I guess that means there are actually three ways to get Jolicloud running on your netbook, two of which don't require any permanent changes or reconfiguration:

- Install the "Express" version, which will leave you running Jolicloud under Windows. Fast, painless, reasonably easy to undo (just go to Windows Add/Remove Programs).

- Download the ISO file and bootable media creator utility, make a bootable CD/USB/Flash copy, and simply run from that. Not quite as fast or painless to set up as the Express version, but it makes absolutely no changes to your hard drive or Windows installation. If you decide you don't like it, there is nothing to do but stop booting from the Live media; if you decide you do like it and want to keep it, it is a simple task to install it either in place of Windows, or to let the installer repartition your hard drive and install it into its own partition without disturbing Windows.

- Download the ISO, create bootable media from it, and install it right away, without bothering to continue running from the Live media. This is what I did, and the entire process took less than an hour.

Once you have a bootable "Live" copy of Jolicloud, installation is exactly the same as for UNR. It took about 10 minutes to install on my ASUS N10J alongside of Windows Vista and the variety of other Linux distributions I have on there already. Once the installation is finished, reboot and you will get the initial screen shown above. While that is a pretty ordinary looking UNR desktop, I think the new and redesigned icons at the top right of the screen probably give a good idea of where Jolicloud is going, and what the new UI might look like. The following screen shot shows the "Preferences" section of the desktop, with a lot more redesigned icons.

Jolicloud preBeta

Once you get Jolicloud installed and connected to the Internet, you are encouraged to connect to the Jolicloud server and create an accout for yourself (and your netbook, actually). In some ways, Jolicloud reminds me of Moblin, it is very web-centric. For example, it offers to pick up your own profile information from one of various online services, as well as picking up friends and contacts there. It was at this point that I noticed that the Jolicloud distribution actually does not include a number of packages that are in the UNR distribution, such as OpenOffice.org. The idea is that once you get the base distribution installed, you can go to their online package management system, and easily choose and install whatever other packages you need.

Jolicloud preBeta

This shot shows the "App Directory", which has available packages and applications grouped by the usual types (Office, Development, Games, etc), as well as "All" and "Favorites" (shown here). It also shows the "Dashboard", which is where you find the Update options for the system and any additional apps you have installed, and "Settings", where you can check and update your profile information.

As I said, it looks to me like Jolicloud has in many ways the kind of "Social" orientation that Moblin has (see Facebook, Twitter etc. in the Apps shot above), but in my opinion they are doing a much better job of integrating it with Linux, keeping the whole thing much more familiar and accessible to experienced Linux users. Even more importantly, they have avoided the juvenile graphics that Moblin is riddled with, and they have actually produced an original and appealing interface. Their blog pomises that the "new UI" will be significantly better than this pre-Beta version, and if that is true it should be magnificent.

Keep that last bit in mind, though, when you consider whether you want to try Jolicloud right now. First, it is openly proclaimed as a "pre-Beta" development version, and second they have clearly stated that a major update is in the works. If you are brave enough to go ahead and try it anyway, I think you might be pleased and impressed with it.

jw 5/1/2010

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