The Zonbu claims to be able to replace your desktop PC for most (if not all) of your day-to-day Internet tasks.
I realized the other day that when I wrote What do we really use our PCs for? that I forgot one really important task: video conferencing with IM contacts.
In our house, this principally means video calling with Grandma who happens to live about 4000 miles away. Being the caretakers of her first and only grandchild, webcam activity is fairly common in our house.
So, what does the Zonbu offer in the area of instant messaging and video support?
Simulating the Pidgin experience
On the Zonbu website they list various Internet applications that come bundled with the box, including the Pidgin IM client.
As my Zonbu hasn’t arrived yet, I grabbed the one of the $500 Acer laptops I mentioned previously, (running Ubuntu Feisty 7.04) and went looking for a Pidgin package to install so I could test it with the cheapo Labtec USB camera that I have kicking around the office.
Oddly, the package isn’t in the Ubuntu repos, but I did discover the very handy www.getdeb.net site, which had a pre-built package for my distribution. A few clicks and Pidgin was installed.
As a side note, the very idea of hunting around for packages won’t be necessary as Zonbu controls the software stack you have available. On the downside, as we’ll see in a minute, this may be a problem depending on the task you’re trying to complete.
Carrier Pidgins don’t do video…
I fired up the Pidgin IM client, gave it my MSN username and password and all my contacts appeared. It was a nice clean interface, well organized and attractive – I was impressed.
I clicked on a contact, exchanged a few messages and was pleased with the experience to that point. I then started looking in the menus to find out how to start the webcam session. I couldn’t find it.
I switched to FireFox and google’d around a bit. No wonder I couldn’t find the option, Pidgin does not support web cam access in the current version.
For now, it’s text only with this carrier Pidgin. Very disappointing. Webcam support is on the “roadmap” that the Pidgin team provide, but it looks to be at least 5-6 months away, if it happens on schedule.
No video support in Pidgin appears to mean no webcam support for the Zonbu under the current model. Skype for Linux does not currently offer webcam support either.
Grandma will not be happy.
Other Options? How about aMSN?
I knew I had seen webcam options on Linux before so I looked at the applications I had installed and saw the aMSN client. I fired it up, logged in and looked in the menus.
Sure enough aMSN has webcam support. I clicked on my mothers IM contact, started talking to her and tested out the camera. She reported it looked fine on her end and also expressed some interest in the Zonbu when I mentioned it to her.
The feature set for video looks to be a bit more basic than what I have under Windows XP but I’m optimistic it will improve over time.
What I’m not sure is if aMSN is available on the Zonbu?
What can I install on my Zonbu?
Based on all the material I’ve scoured regarding the Zonbu it appears that the basic unit with the subscription doesn’t allow me to install any applications of my own choosing; I appear to be stuck with what the Zonbu team offers. If I want to pay the $249 fee for the hardware itself then I can play around with it.
Being able to make video calls with your IM application is pretty standard fare these days. aMSN is only a single IM network option, but it is at least an option.
I hope Zonbu work with the Linux community to improve video calling support in the IM space and move rapidly to get a video-capable application pushed out to their users. Perhaps aMSN is the way to go.
Right now, it appears that the Zonbu is missing one of the more popular, “every day user” features that we enjoy with our “bigger” desktop machines, and for me it would be a sacrifice I doubt the family would be comfortable making.
PS – It just occured to me… No webcam support means you can’t “make your voice be heard” on YouTube… That just won’t do. I’d make a witty remark here and link to a saucy YouTube video but they already nailed that one on the Daily Show the other night. I try and stay away from the easy ones…