Thursday, February 28, 2013

The March

I’m writing this on my recycled Compaq Armada, in AbiWord, a lightweight word processor that I use on several of my systems (it works in both rich and plain text). So far, it’s enjoyable enough.
I’m here trying to see what sort of “serious” work can be done with this setup. As it happens, my old ThinkPad 760XD, running Windows 98SE, is also setup to do “serious” work, with the understanding that its OS is a decade and a half old. Both machines are quite capable of serious work, but the one area where they both suffer is the Internet.
I am at least running the Chromium browser on this Compaq, and it is fairly modern by today’s standards. It was installed after the OS was setup. It is slow, as should be expected considering the tight confines of the RAM overhead (192 MB) and processor speed (366 mHz). It still runs, albeit a little sluggishly. So while just a few years ago I would have considered my old ThinkPad 760XD to be the bare minimum requirements, my thoughts have now shifted; 166 mHz, 64 MB RAM may be sufficient for Windows 98SE, but is simply too old for today’s demands.
Both of these machines appeared a couple of years apart, yet they are vastly different. The advent of the Pentium II chip was the breakthrough that changed things back then. IBM did follow suit, but the simple fact remains that this machine, with more than twice the CPU speed and three times the RAM, is a heavyweight compared to the older ThinkPad.
The days when those sort of jumps occurred, when Moore’s Law seemed to be in full play, are probably over. That particular generation of machine saw rapid, bordering on chaotic, growth. The dominant areas of concentration these days are in mobile computing, with tablets and smart phones leading the pack. The days of concentrating strictly on CPU horsepower might not necessarily be behind us, but the emphasis of late has shown signs of change in other directions.
Still, as I write this, the march of obsolescence continues, older machines being relegated to the closet or the dump. Machines that just a short time ago amused and amazed us. Machines that are probably still capable of doing so, provided the means.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Bridging The Digital Divide - The Hardware Problem

One of my sincerest desires and hopes lay in bridging the so called digital divide. The idea was put forth recently for the creation of free national wireless Internet. The telecom industry, in its near religious embrace of free market, of course balked. The idea is a great one, and I support it, but it will not help to bridge that gap.
The problem isn't necessarily one of access to the Internet. The problem is one of hardware. 
Providing free internet to those who do not have access is a pointless exercise if they do not have the requisite hardware.
And even if they do, is it capable of being useful?
For a few years, I experimented with various Linux installs on older computers. The goal was to see how useful they could be made. It saddens me to see dozens, perhaps hundreds, of capable old computers sitting idle in thrift stores and flea markets. They can drop the prices on these down to $5 or $10 USD, and still, they sit idle. Why? Because, from an OS standpoint, they are obsolete.
With a simple, lightweight Linux install, and using lightweight applications, I made these older machines useful, except where heavy Internet usage was concerned. Forget media on the Internet; sites as seemingly simple as Blogger eventually reached a point where they wouldn't load. 
You see, for most of my tests, I chose two simple milestones - Facebook and Blogger. If Facebook couldn't load in complex form (not mobile), then how well does Blogger load? I expected Facebook to fail more often, not Blogger. Yet now, I can reach Facebook in mobile mode in most browsers, especially older ones. Blogger? 
And that's just for starters.
Some sites are designed to work with one browser. Still. In this day of what should be open standards. We set up one of the household computers with Ubuntu 10.4 LTS, and it runs great. Except for going to a site that our then middle school student needed for school. 
"Site requires Internet Explorer 7 or higher."
This is very poor thinking on somebody's behalf, in my opinion.
Low cost, capable hardware is really the bigger issue. If we expect our children to have access to media rich content, and some school districts are beginning to do just that, they need more than just access. They need machines that are capable. 
The easy answer is to say that they can use computers at libraries. With all the cutbacks in funding for libraries, and the resultant cut in their hours, this sort of thinking is shortsighted. We say they can buy used computers, but even ones that can be considered moderately modern have the potential to costs a couple hundred US dollars; most poor families have bigger concerns.
What about school supplied computers or tablets? Some schools are doing this, but for the most part they are private or located in communities that are doing fairly well. Locally (Jacksonville, Florida), there is a program to supply some pre-k students with iPad tablets. It's a start, but not nearly enough.
No, of course not.
There are some low cost computers that have become available the past few years. I was quite excited about the Smartbooks when they began showing up in late 2009. These little Windows CE and Linux devices costs between $100 - $200 USD. 
Based upon my tests, the Windows CE Smartbooks had a failure rate of 33%. There are tales on the Internet of exploding batteries; in my remaining machine, the battery is down to less than fifteen minutes of life, with the WiFi turned off (with it on, less than ten). Sylvania has discontinued importing them. You can at least read about my initial experiences with it here .
There are other Netbooks and now Chromebooks, which at least have the promise of providing an inexpensive alternative. But they normally run between $240 - $300 USD. There are plenty of smartphones out there as well, but can these truly substitute for computers?
Clearly, another solution has to be found. We can build a free Internet Super Highway; we just need to make sure the on ramps are easier accessed by those whom we seek to help. Otherwise, it becomes an exercise in futility.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

So, now that we know

So, now that we know that messages can be sent via a mobile device, the question becomes one of how big a message.

Going Primitive

This is being sent via my Jornada. Why, you ask? This is a test. I believe
that the Internet should be open to all, including those of limited means.
So, here we are.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Apple, Tablets & Hybrids

Tim Coook has weighed in about the future of tablets, at least those that are not Apple's. He feels that tablet/laptop hybrids have no place in the marketplace. 
While he may have something of a point, given the checkered history of tablet computing, he may have a point. I suspect that there is more to this. Obviously, simply adding a keyboard to an iPad makes it a fairly decent laptop replacement (with caveats). The most inexpensive laptop that Apple produces is on average nearly twice as expensive as an iPad, so perhaps Cook is looking out for another product line, though the iOS products are Apple's biggest sellers. 
It has also been suggested that Apple may be planning such a device. To be honest, I doubt that. The iPad is such a well designed gadget that simply adding a keyboard suffices for that "hybrid".
I think that what we're really seeing here is marketing, plain and simple. Apple would rather have you purchase their masterfully crafted devices than those less refined from their competitors. 
Still, I also suspect that such devices are coming. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Breaking Connections

I had the misfortune of spending too many hours this today trying to get my eMate to talk to my Windows XP laptop. This was never an issue before; three months ago, it synched up just fine. Today, it simply wouldn't budge. It would connect, but whenever I tried to export a NewtonWorks document, it would encounter a communication error. 
This is problematic. 
The only computer in the house that the eMate will connect to now is our Bondi iBook running OS 9.2.2. 
While I am keeping my three Newton devices for various reasons, this is disconcerting. The recently acquired MP100 is a great e-reader, the 2000 will probably be as well, but I've used the eMate as a portable word processor almost exclusively. It has a number of items on it that sorely need to be moved. They can be moved, but only to that iBook. 
This is nothing against the iBook, it is a great old computer. But it has a hard time connecting to the Internet, and for me that is a make-or-break matter. It can connect, thanks to a great browser called Classilla, but is somewhat limited. It can move files that way, though, and today that's what I did. But it is inconvenient.
While I may be a big advocate for older systems, we are trying to eliminate some of the older systems we have due to space. The iBook was not slated to be retired, but was to be stored. Now, it appears as though that can't happen, at least until I off load the rest of those files from the eMate. The sad thing is that the eMate has been cutoff from my main computer directly. 
I may believe in older systems, but I am a bigger believer in simplicity.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Moving Right Along

Once upon a time, I wanted this blog to be dedicated to the notion of keeping and using older computers, to keep them from obsolesence. 
It turns out that obsolesence is mainly a state of mind.
Many computer enthusiasts continue using older machines for a variety of reasons, personal and otherwise. A friend of ours still uses an Amstrad PCW8256 for writing. Another uses their old game computer for gaming. Then there's a fellow in Pakistan who uses an older IBM for publishing a paper. 
As for myself, I use a number of older computers for a variety of reasons, though mainly for curiosity's sake. I have, once more, begun using my Tandy Model 102 (and 200) as well as my eMate for writing, since they are superb for that, with very minimal distraction. I also have a couple of typewriters, one manual the other electric, that I could use as well, and enjoy, but far be it from me to recommend that everyone follow my lead.
To say that I will end writing about these older machines and my adventures on them would be an untruth. Recently, however, my focus has been focused on not just what these computers are capable of, but getting them on the Internet. To varying degrees, I've found success. The rub is that while most of these computers can access the Internet, the results are less than satisfactory for most. The Internet has moved well past what these computers are capable of.
When I picked up a Newton 2000 for a song recently, it made me painfully aware of some of the problems I was facing. The only computer it can dock with was my PowerBook 5300c. This computer has been very cranky of late. A few years back I noticed that it would have an occasional bus error. The infrared port is basically useless, not capable of using the IrDA protocol, and the only way to move data is via a floppy drive that is becoming iffy. The painful truth is that the computer has become redundant, though I hesitate to say obsolete. It isn't alone. My first color laptop, my PowerBook 540c, runs beautifully but it can no longer write data reliably to the floppy drive, currently its only connection to the outside world. A lack of modern ports, namely USB, severely restricts both. 
As difficult as it is, both machines have lost their usefulness. They still work, mind you, even with their problems. Their utility, though, has passed. 
Ironically, a solution exists that will not only allow the Newtons to be used, but allow all my devices to be docked to one machine, incredibly my iBook Clamshell. While still old, it is far more useful. The iBook represents what may actually be the rearguard, the oldest machine capable of using the Internet, yet modern enough to have a USB port. 
Yes, we will revisit the older computers. But for now, there's plenty to do, doors to knock on, noises to make.