Rural Mexico, the backstreets of Guatemala City, the outskirts of Mumbai; these aren’t places you find a lot of computers for one simple reason; most computers are far too expensive. What you do find are lots of TVs so why not build a cheap, flexible computer without a display? And ship it without a keyboard and mouse because those are items that can usually be sourced locally at low cost.
What would computers do for people in these places? They would deliver information, education, and opportunity. Record keeping for farmers, reading lessons for children, tools for creating and communicating … the potential for computers to improve the lot of millions of people is just waiting on the right gear and I think the right gear is what a new company, Endless, is about to launch.
The result of three years of development, the company’s eponymous machine is a slightly eccentric design which, I’m told, was very successfully tested in its target markets. The device uses an Intel® Celeron® N2807 1.7 GHz Dual-Core processor (burst speed 2.1 GHz) with 2 GB of RAM. It has an RJ-45 Gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports (front, lower rear), a USB 3.0 port (upper rear), stereo line out, and HDMI and VGA outputs.
There are two Endless models: The $169 version with 32 GB eMMC (embedded MultiMedia storage) and SD Storage, and the $229 version with a 500GB hard drive. They are both powered by 12V input (the included adapter handles 100V to 240V at 50Hz or 60Hz) and the versions draw 24W and 30W respectively. The 500GB hard drive version (the version I tested) also includes an integrated speaker, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, and Bluetooth 4.0.
What sets the Endless apart from other low cost machines is Endless OS, a highly customized version of Ubuntu Linux with Gnome (and lots of other interesting technology such as Xapian and OStree) that not only handles TVs as output devices (it scales and formats video output for readability), but also includes a huge library of applications and educational content. This is important because in emerging markets the Endless system will be useful and well-featured even if you don’t have any kind of networking services available.
While it’s based on open source projects, the Endless OS is not completely open source because it contains proprietary commercial code. The company’s open source philosophy is:
We embrace the principles of free and open-source software and acknowledge a great debt to it in creating Endless OS. Whenever we can, we work upstream and contribute back to open source. Although not everything we create can be open source, we release most components of our system under free software licenses. Many members of our core team have a long history with open source projects, and continue to be an active part of those communities. / You might notice that we maintain forks of many upstream packages. In most cases, this is because we submit our patches upstream and backport them to the stable versions that we ship.
Endless OS has been localized for a remarkable number of languages and installation is polished and simple. It was in the installation process I found the only issue I could identify in the whole system: I used a Vizio VP50 50-inch 720P HD Plasma TV via HDMI and when the setup asked me if I could see the menu bars at the top and bottom of the screen I clicked on “no” and the system adjusted the overscan. The result was that I could see a little of the menu bars but I had to go into the TV setup to fix the display. It’s a minor problem but Endless OS could do with a more comprehensive overscan adjustment system.
In operation, the system is smooth, fast, stable, and easy to understand and navigate. The applications (which include both productivity software as well as games) and content on the 500GB version I tested are extensive and the system includes a huge amount of Wikipedia and the Khan Academy (if an Internet connection is available, the system will automatically download software and content updates). You choose what content and software you want from what is essentially a built-in app store.
Endless also makes information available for developers and while the operating system is only available on Endless’ own hardware all open source modifications are available on GitHub (the company notes that it may make the disk images available in the future which will likely spawn a wave of similar hardware products).
My only concern with the Endless system are that it doesn't have a reset button or startup so if you forget your password there's no obvious way to wipe and start again (I tried the usual way of entering Linux recovery mode - holding down shift at boot - but that didn't work). A similar concern applies for a way to easily wipe the system, for example, if you were going to give your Endless computer to someone else.
So, who’s the Endless computer aimed at? Endless plans to sell their machines initially into markets such as Mexico and Guatemala where it should be a good fit for schools and colleges as well as the emerging middle class. What I think is really powerful about the Endless concept is the operating system and its focus on being useful even when there’s no Internet connectivity. If we can add to that mesh networking and good old sneaker net for updates and enhancements the potential for business and education in developing economies to get a computing boost is huge.
You can’t buy an Endless computer just yet (it's due to ship in the near future) but you can register to be notified when it will be available.
The Endless computer gets a Gearhead rating of 5 out of 5.
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