Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Ballmer: We need a $100 PC | Tech News on ZDNet

Ballmer: We need a $100 PC | Tech News on ZDNet: "One way to stem piracy is to offer consumers in emerging countries a low-cost PC, Ballmer said. 'There has to be...a $100 computer to go down-market in some of these countries. We have to engineer (PCs) to be lighter and cheaper,' he said."

Balmer has finally lost his mind!

But of course, he is right. We need a dirt cheap PC, and a dirt cheap, if not free operating system to run on it. The hardware is in fact available and is already in the right price range. So what's the hold up Bill and Steve?

Oh, I said "hold-up" I guess that's a clue.

No, first-world countries need not be subsidizing the third world. The OS and the hardware already exist. All that is needed to to get Windows out of the picture (pun intended), or for MS to start selling it for what it's still worth. $15 or so should do it, maybe $20.

Now stop whining and go fix those security holes!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Monday, October 18, 2004

Without a Bang

Well, this has nothing directly to do with Second Life, except a principle or two. That and the fact that I've ignored this Blog for far too long. On one of the many technical forums I monitor I found a frustrated Linux advocate who asked the following question (followed by my answer):


"So, my question for discussion here is this, what path could / should / might linux take to achieve say a 25% penetration into the desktop?"

The (maybe) surprising answer to your question is: It Doesn't Matter.

Well, I have to qualify that. As long as those of us who are happily using Linux now (particularly those who are contributing to the codebase) continue to do so, Linux usage will grow. How fast it will grow can't be known, because that depends on the actions of others (such as Microsoft, the US Government, Governments of other countries, large corporate users, etc) that we can't predict with any precision.

It's been only a year or so since all the major computer publications pronounced this the "Year of the Linux Desktop" for the third time. I wasn't around for the earlier false predictions, but for this one I shook my head and wondered why anyone would want to set us end-users up for such a disappointing result.

Bad News Good News

The bad news is that Microsoft functions like a dictatorship. Bill Gates could change the direction of Microsoft tomorrow in ways that might hurt Linux Uptake. The good news is that Microsoft is no longer such a fun or profitable place to work as it used to be. Bill Gates saying "make it so" will be followed by something resembling turning the Queen Mary than the Starship Enterprise. With some luck we might replace "Queen Mary" in that last sentence with "Titanic".

The bad news is that in the US of A almost anyone who really wants to have a computer has one, and is happy enough with whatever OS came on it to not want to bother changing. The good news is that worldwide computer uptake is just getting started. People in countries like China, India, Brazil to name the big three would rather NOT use products from America for various reasons. China has it's own non-Intel motherboard already (the others may too) and use of Linux is growing in all three countries. Microsoft has used desperation pricing to stem this tide, but the fact is that there are factors other than price at work here. The Chinese for example fear that they might be spied upon if they use a proprietary OS. In response Microsoft made the source code available to the Chinese. Beyond that there is pure nationalism. Can Microsoft pull up roots in Redmond and become a truly international company fast enough to respond to this? I seriously doubt their willingness or ability to do so.

The bad news is that Microsoft is one of the biggest most successful companies of any kind in history. They have more money in the bank than anyone else (that I know of) which gives them all sorts of flexibility in terms of acquiring new technologies, hiring new talent, paying for advertising (both under the table and over it) and so on. The good news is that they are a victim of their own success. As a monopolist they can't just buy any other company they choose. I doubt they could get away with buying IBM or Apple, or Intel, for example. As I mentioned before it's no longer as fun a place to work. There are plenty of stories out there about creative people who accumulated a few million in stock options at Microsoft and then retired. I know of at least one who immediately got rid of all his PCs and outfitted his family with Apple computers. I'm sure there are others.

Other Factors

Finally, let's take note of the fact that computer science has reached a major plateau in several respects. Since I got out of college in the early 70's we have failed to come close to producing artificial intelligence, useful general purpose robots or even mundane things like speech recognition that actually works. Desktop systems of today are more than adequate for any business task at hand. In fact we can ONLY challenge the hardware at our disposal by inventing ever more complex computer GAMES. Until some major breakthrough in the SCIENCE of computers, I don't expect this situation to change much. That means, computers are going to become almost disposable in nature. Laptop break? Throw it away and get a new one at the local convenience store. Like cell phones. This is not a good situation for Microsoft, or any company that ONLY makes operating systems. I find it totally plausible that Microsoft could LOSE INTEREST in Windows, in favor of continuing with the cash cows of office products and games if it becomes clear that there is no LEVERAGE in propping up the fates of the latter with ownership of the former. I still think that an eventual Office for Linux is a possibility.

Then there is Google. As a former mainframe user I've never ceased to be amazed at how often "NEW" concepts being rolled out for PCs are really OLD concepts that we had on mainframes back when the largest of such systems supported hundreds of users with less than a Meg of storage. Loss of files through system crashes or data corruption is so common on PCs that we hardly even think about it. The typical PC user knows better than to store anything of vital importance ONLY on their PC. I recently read advice to home computer users that the best backup strategy is to PRINT OUT all important documents. As silly as this sounds, I have to agree. I recently threw out some backup tapes that I made in the 90's after realizing that I not only didn't have the software to read them any more, but I don't have the drives they go in. I've dutifully created CDs with a lot of my "important" data on it, but I have no idea if they will be readable when I need them or if the format they are written in will be patented and thus illegal for me to use by that time. During a not so recent move, I forwarded several POP e-mail accounts to a single Gmail ID so that I could more easily check my mail on any computer. Normally I hate web based e-mail interfaces. My move is long since completed, but I'm still using Gmail exclusively. The responsiveness seems so much better than my POP access ever was. I even find myself using cut-and-paste into the Gmail message composer to get a quick spell-check of text files I create. It seems to be not only faster (and easier) but more accurate than anything else I've found. Would I give up StarOffice, Powerpoint, calendar and address programs, spreadsheets, local accounting software for personal and business needs for an equivalent, fast, reliable, web interface that comes with a few advertising strings attached? Oh, in a nanosecond or two. I have a feeling I wouldn't be alone either.

Some may be disappointed that there is no "victory parade" when the "Linux Desktop" finally arrives. I have a feeling that the day may go unnoticed. Like the commoditization of PC hardware, Linux represents only the most noticeable aspect of the commoditization of PC software. That process will almost surely involve aspects (such as web interfaces) which only incidentally involve Linux, or don't involve Linux at all. Nonetheless they will be cheap, or free, and probably to a large extent offer the type of open interface (API's) if not outright Open Source that we all want. The reasons that such change is almost inevitable are the same reasons that they may just go unnoticed by all but a few geeks like us.


There are a few parallels with Second Life. For one thing, SL is just one of MANY online recreational activities. Expecting SL to become THE recreational activity of most people anytime soon is unrealistic. Furthermore, the whole notion of immersive/online/3D/interactive/etc. software is still in it's infancy. There are few standards, and those that do exist (VRML) were too primitive on the day they were born. It will be a while, maybe a good long while, before this changes. But it will change. I think it's almost inevitable that some sort of open standard for such systems will emerge.

Secondly, like Gmail, Second Life takes us back to the days of big centrally located computers. While I hate the huge amount of bandwidth that SL consumes, the notion that this "World" I am interacting with runs almostly completely independently of anything that happens on my PC is a critical, and perhaps essential aspect of such programs. In Snowcrash the author describes a bug in the online system that allows people to slip through walls on occasion. In Activeworld you could define your own copy of a wall, resized by half and store it on your local PC. Enter the world where that wall existed and walk right around it. In SecondLife, walls and doors are fairly effective. But I can still stand close to an outer wall and use my camera to peek inside. There is almost no place your camera can't go with enough ingenuity. Gradually the interface will improve and while it may never become perfect, as new features break old things that had been perfected, the current system shows the promise of what can be done. Like Linux, the progress toward the ultimate immersive experience seems slow, at times glacial. But one of these days we will find ourselves there, and looking back, wonder when it happened.