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Webconverger 11 review

Can an operating system consisting of just a web browser, designed for public kiosk use, offer anything of use to the masses? Gareth Halfacree investigates…

Webconverger is an interesting project, but one that is clearly targeting a small niche of the overall Linux market. Founded in 2007 as a business entity, the project aims to create a fast and efficient locked-down distribution aimed at public-facing computers that only need access to web apps.

Based on Debian and compiled for i686, the latest Webconverger 11.0 release carries on the company’s tradition: there’s no ‘desktop’ to speak of, with the underlying Debian OS instead loading directly into IceWeasel 9.0.1, an off-shoot of Mozilla’s popular Firefox web browser.

The Webconverger live CD boot menu is sparse, to say the least

The idea behind Webconverger is that by removing all the extraneous functionality of a general-purpose distribution and locking the system down to a single web-browsing app, those who need to create ‘kiosk’ systems for public use will find a handy, robust and above all secure environment tailored to their needs.

It’s a neat idea, and one at which at first glance the distribution excels: while free software enthusiasts will be disappointed at the inclusion of ‘binary blob’ software like Adobe’s Flash Player, the Webconverger team has worked hard to ensure that the browser includes as much functionality and compatibility as possible.

It’s only once you start to delve a little deeper that some of Webconverger’s shortcomings become apparent. Configuration, as an example, isn’t as straightforward as it could be: because there’s no access to any of the desktop’s usual settings, all configuration must be done on the kernel options line of the bootloader.

If that wasn’t awkward enough, the default background – the Webconverger logo – clashes with the default text colour – white – to make editing the kernel mode line an exercise in squinting on smaller screens.

In ‘digital signage’ mode, the browser’s chrome is completely hidden from view for a seamless full-screen appearance

If you’re willing to read the documentation and spend the time figuring out Webconverger’s particular configuration language, however, there’s plenty of flexibility to be found: the default home page can be customised to a local or remote page of your choice, while the browser’s chrome – the title bar, icons and address bar – can be minimised or removed entirely to put the distribution in what Webconverger describes as ‘digital signage mode.’

More difficulties are to be had when it comes to configuring the network settings. If you’re planning to use Webconverger on a network with DHCP, then everything will likely work out of the box with the exception of joining a secure wireless network, which requires a single ‘wlan=essid,key’ entry on the kernel mode line; for those who configure network settings manually, things get a bit more difficult with the requirement to edit a file in a chrooted jail by manually deconstructing and reconstructing the ISO image.

Recent changes may also surprise older users: gone is the browser customisation that prevented access to about:config or the file:/// menu, meaning that it’s possible for public kiosk users to start fiddling with settings that they likely have no right to access.

There’s no real ‘desktop’ to be found in Webconverger 11, just a browser window

The security issue this could cause is lessened by the way Webconverger works: browser history and the like gets reset each time a tab is closed, while chroot jails prevent access to the most sensitive system files; if a user does manage to corrupt the system, of course, a quick reboot resets everything to defaults once more.

For those looking to use Webconverger professionally, there’s a final option to consider: for the princely sum of £100, the company will provide a pre-configured ISO with the settings tailored to your needs. It’s not the cheapest option around, but if you need a kiosk system right now and don’t have time to experiment it’s certainly worth considering.

Verdict: 3/5
Webconverger is a distribution aimed at a small but important niche, and it does its job well. An up-to-date browser and Adobe Flash Player are let down only by an unnecessarily complicated configuration system that can leave newcomers – or, at least, those unwilling to pay £100 for the commercial version – scratching their heads.