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. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Thinking Again...

I like both Google and Facebook and feel that the competition between them is actually slowing things down. Let’s be honest here; they both collect information and both have the potential to expose your personal information unwittingly. Unfortunately, that is what happens when you put your information out there. We had the same gripe about AOL and CompuServe back in the 1990’s, but of course we were also paying for the privilege.
It comes down to what one is willing to pay and tolerate. Both Google and Facebook offer services that are free; these are paid for by advertisements. A fair chunk of these ads are targeted, and guess what? The only way that can happen is if they know a little about you. Since I’ve had to tolerate worse shenanigans since earlier days on the Internet, I just shrug these things off and think, “things could always be worse, and once, it was.”
If you don’t want to have to deal with issues like these yet still want to be involved with the social Internet, you have options, but one set relies upon beefing up your computer skills, the other paying for these services. For instance, you could always learn how to use open source alternatives and work with Telnet and some of the alternative services that you can find in shell accounts. While once fairly mainstream for die hard computer enthusiasts, this is pretty much beyond the scope of what the regular user might want, or even be capable of. While it’s true that this method allows you to use older, system restricted systems, the experience is far different than what the Internet normally offers.
Or, you could always sign up for services such as The Well. I’m a fan of The Well, and really admire the work they do, but I do not have an account with them at this time.
The problem with both of these options is that they have the potential to shield you from the greater Internet, and this goes both ways. Of course, that seems to be happening anyway.
The bickering between the two giants, though, has got to stop.

This Instrument (Facebook) Can Teach...

Are Mark Zuckerberg's interests in the education potential of Facebook self-serving?
It would be so very easy to dismiss them as just that. However, after reading this article at CNN Money, I get the feeling he's being genuine.
Children learn best in an environment that has fair degree of social interaction, and in order for a child to function in this world, social skills need to be honed. In addition, there has to be play, creativity, imagination. Could Facebook be used for something like this? I'm going to skirt around the various concerns that there may be, and instead focus on the what-if.
Imagine an educational Facebook (Kinderbook? Edubook?). The interface would not be so different from what normal users of the service see at this time. However, the number of distractions are lower. Instead of games like Farmville or, gasp, Mafia Wars, the children would access games that teach skills; math, language, critical thinking, even programming. The site could be written in such a way that the child can modify it to suit their needs and interests, down to the font and colors, with a considerable amount of drag and drop of the various widgets.
As the child grows and matures, other areas of the site would open up to them, and they can explore anew. Exploring equals learning. Their user ID would contain traits and profile information that could dictate where the child can go, what they can do. This user ID would have parental controls, naturally.
There is potential here.
Edward R. Murrow famously said (during an editorial about television) that "this instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire." The same is true of the Internet, of course, and especially Facebook.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

So Close To Awesome

In May 2011, I received my first Apple Newton Message Pad 2000.

The 1990's saw rapid growth in personal computing, primarily for portable and handheld devices. The PDA explosion started in 1992, with John Sculley's introduction of the term to the world.

PDA-like devices, though, had already been around since at least the mid-1980's. By 1990, the market had seen several small computers, such as the Atari Portfolio, come to the market, and they all had functions that would classify them as PDA's by today's standards. All Sculley really did was to apply a name to the category.

The device that he specifically referred to as a PDA was Apple's Newton Message Pad.

What wasn't mentioned is that this was not the path that the Newton team envisioned. When the Newton was under development, it was seen as the next phase in personal computing, a small, easy to carry device that could perform all the functions of a regular computer. Apple sunk millions of dollars into the division, and somewhere along the way, the scope of the project grew, apparently too much. In order to keep the Newton line from interfering with Apple's Macintosh line, the Newton was scaled back to become a computer companion device.

By this time, other devices were waiting in the wings. Jeff Hawkins and his team had worked with Tandy in development of their handheld line, the Zoomer, and were now looking at starting a company of their own; Palm Computing. While Sculley may have created the term PDA, it would be Palm that defined it. Other companies planned similar devices as well, based on systems like Windows CE (which bears more than a passing resemblance to Microsoft's PC operating system).

All of these competing devices, though, paled compared to the Newton line. While Sculley may have cut the scale of the Newton back, the devices themselves remained as powerful as ever. They may have been "PDA's", but actually fell in the space between that class and laptops or even regular computers. From processor speed to storage, the Newton had more in common with a regular computer than simply a digital companion it was sold as.

This blurry line between PDA and regular computer contributed to the difficulties encountered in marketing the device. It was also more expensive.

In 1997, the Newton division released the final three models; the Message Pads (MP) 2000 and 2100, and the eMate laptop. Of the three, the laptop had the most potential but was deliberately set to lower specs than the two Message Pads.

The MP2000, the first model released in 1997, had startling specs -

162 MHz StrongARM processor
4MB Flash memory
2 PCMCIA slots
480x320 resolution backlit screen
Infrared port
Interconnect port

It was as powerful as many laptops of the day, and the processor alone put it well into regular computer territory. Compare these with the PalmPilot Professional, also released in early 1997 -

16.58 MHz DragonBall MC68328 processor
160x160 resolution screen
Serial port

The deal killer was the price; the Newton retailed for $950, the PalmPilot Professional was $399.

The MP2000 series, as well as the eMate, weren't PDA's. What is evident in the last Newtons is that they were entering new territory; true mobile computing. The 2000 series compare wonderfully with many of today's tablet computers. There is an active community, one might even say rabid, that still support the Newton.

We can only speculate as to what the Newton could have become. The division was briefly spun-off in 1997, only to be brought back into Apple after Steve Jobs returned. The Newton division was then closed down in February 1998. Many of its brightest minds left Apple, never to return. Some stayed, while others did eventually return, speculatively after being asked to; Steve Jobs had this little idea he was working on.

But the Newton was a spectacular misfit, and a pretty damned awesome one.

(A very nice article on the Newton division can be found at Low End Mac -  "The Story Behind Apple's Newton" by Tom Hormby )

Monday, May 16, 2011

In The Cloud

I have a few concerns about cloud computing. In mid-2000, I saw a wonderful Internet computer called the I-Opener. This was an Internet-only device, basically a web appliance, that would allow anyone access via a built-in 56.6k modem. The idea fascinated me immensely, and I began looking for ways to make applications for these devices. By the time I had given it any consideration, however, the notion of an Internet-only device had died; the I-Opener and a few other related devices were commercial flops. The notion of Web-based applications, however, stuck with me, though I never went further then than thinking about them. By 2005, though, it was evident that there was a surge in cloud based computing, and soon I was using Google Docs for quite a bit of my work.
I like the term "the cloud". It conjures up wonderful images of a vast, hovering, somewhat ambiguous place where everything is connected. Cloud computing has arrived in full force now, and with recent advances in mobile computing, it is here to stay.
But, and that is a big 'but', there may be too much thinking about the cloud being the end-all-be-all of personal computing. There is increased emphasis on doing everything via the Internet, if only for portability's sake. The idea here is that access to the Internet/Web/Cloud would always be convenient. While the word may not have been used in that last sentence, that is a mighty big 'if'.
There are really three concerns here. The first is the assumption that the cloud will always be within reach of these devices. This is one of the reasons why Google and many of the other content providers are behind the National Broadband Plan and the National Wireless Initiative. That they want to make it more widespread is not a bad idea. Even if they succeed, though, there will be places that it may still be restricted, either deliberately or by geographical circumstance.
My second concern is the nature of the Internet/Web/Cloud; while there may be efforts to keep it neutral, the truth is that any agency or group can shut it off, or at least your access to it. Don't think that the government of the United States would ever shut it off? Guess again; if there was a big enough crisis, you bet they'd throttle it down or kill it entirely. The whole of the Internet is built upon the skeleton of a government-backed program to link crucial data centers together. They built it, they can wreck it. Or, worse, somebody else could.
My final concern is simply this; whose data is it, anyway? If I create it, I want to be able to store it where I can, and not only, or strictly, in the cloud.

Whose Stuff Is It, Anyway?

The one thing that bothers me most about the concept of Cloud computing is that total lack of control you have. Yes, you can have a paid account to your online storage and yes, it may be accessible from any computer.

The truth is, though, that this illusion of control is just that, an illusion. A few problems exist -

1. The belief that access to a network is universal. It is not, as there are several factors that could impede Internet and other Cloud access; geography, architecture, technical issues. If you need to work on a document but have neither access to the document or potential online applications (I'm looking at you, Google), you are effectively screwed.

2. The belief that access to the network is unimpeded. Don't think for a moment that some pissy body of souls out there, be it an access provider or a government, won't cut it off. It might one day be truly neutral, but we should never assume that it can't be shut off.

3. The belief that you own some of the apps. As this article at CNN points out, riiiiight. All your apps are belong to them, at least those that you acquire through "official" channels (app stores).

4. Whose OS is it anyway? Time to re-read those agreements.

So, no matter how cool and neat-o those mobile devices are, the idea of control that they offer is very much an illusion. What's to be done? Google, at least, is making some steps in returning control, even going so far as to include rooting tools in the upcoming Chrome-based netbooks. Our friends in Cupertino, though, don't seem to be as interested.

Which is really sad, and kinda sucks in a big way.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

You Almost Lost Me At The Inability To Save To My Own Internal Storage...

I have one little complaint about the Android operating system, and by extension the Chrome OS. Both of these operating systems originated for the mobile device market; phones (smart or otherwise), tablets and lightweight netbooks. Both operating systems are very light for what they do, they have fast boot times and low memory overhead.
They also lack a true file system.
That is the part that really bothers me. Both Android and Chrome run on Linux-based operating systems; they are not really operating systems per se but interfaces. Linux is a hierarchal operating system. Everything is a file, and files are stored in folders. Most operating systems use file systems, except for the earliest ones or those designed for the simplest devices.
That last couple of words there is the catch; simplest devices. You see, the developers do not view Android and Chrome as real computer operating systems but mobile device operating systems. Which is horse hockey; there are folders in there, you can bet. Restricting access to them kind of blows.
Restricting access to external storage devices blows even harder.
My Sylvania tablet runs Android 2.2, and has almost a gig of internal storage. Yet I can't save to documents directly to it. I can access a Micro SD or thumb drive, but I can't save a file internally?
Not cool.
To me, Android is not mature enough for anything but simple mobile devices at this point. It may look cool, and I love the interface. Restricting access to storage, though, is not cool.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Caveat Emptor

Cheap technology is cheap. Sounds witty, right? Not terribly funny, however. Cheaply made electronics are as much a problem now as they have always been. The trouble is that these days they are more prevalent due to the number of them arriving on these shores. When I was a teenager, my parents bought for me an inexpensive Setico radio from Pic-n-Save; this item was made in Japan, not a country we associate with inexpensive electronics these days. That wasn't always the case. While good products could be had from Japan even then, discount chains such as Pic-n-Save would import from lower quality sources. These items would inevitably fail after a few months. My radio lasted for just shy of a year before there was a pop, the acrid smell of burning epoxy followed by blue smoke. Right in the middle of Peter Frampton.
Today, cheap electronics come primarily from China as well as southeast Asia.
We have more consumer electronics than ever, and the vast majority come from these sources. Too often, the quality in these products is lacking, and there is inevitable failures. This occurs from the component level up. Like the old saying about chain links, one minor failure can bring down the entire device.
So all it takes is one minor hardware glitch to kill a system. Caveat emptor; you get what you pay for.
It is only logical, therefore, that a $99 netbook would be a risk.
I purchased two more of them for testing purposes. One of them, a slightly older model, turns out, barely booted the first time. The second time... nothing. Not even the initial start up screen.
So, failure rate of 33%, at least for my set of three.
Just a bit disappointing.
When compared to older Windows CE handhelds such as the Jornada palmtop computers, the Sylvania laptop seems a little flimsy. Other inexpensive laptops also seem flimsy as well, to be honest. Keep in mind, though, that the Jornada really was really a pricier machine for its time, as much as $900 in 1999. It is rock solid; you got what you paid for.
This is not an indictment of the $99 netbook. It is a concern. These little netbooks have quite a bit of potential. The failures are disconcerting, though, and a look through the Internet reveals that there have been plenty.
So far, mine has run 100%, and the second machine appears to be doing well. Perhaps the manufacturers have gotten their acts together. With any luck, perhaps, they might even spur a rennaissance in the operating system that most of them come equipped with, Windows CE. In the mean time, caveat emptor.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

PDA's and Tablets and Computers, Oh My!

I am writing this on my Sylvania netbook. It is a computer, regardless of what the box says. If I so choose, I could replace the operating system, add or remove software, do pretty much everything that you can do with other small computers (with the understanding that, by its nature, it is somewhat limited).
Still, it meets the qualification; it is a computer.
The term computer, though, is being used and misused in interesting ways these days, especially where mobile devices are concerned. Much of this goes back to the early days of these devices and the divergent evolutionary courses they took. One of the best examples is the Apple Newton. Quite a ways into its development, the deliberate corporate decision was made to cut back on its capabilities; it had the potential to cut into Apple's flagship, the Macintosh computer line. In 1992, then Apple CEO John Sculley coined the phrase "PDA" to describe the Newton. With that, a whole new genre was born, satellites for your main computer. Now, a device that held much promise as a stand alone unit is relegated to secondary.
The first Newtons were amazingly powerful little devices, though they could hardly be considered satellites (even though they were). The first Message Pads were as powerful as the early Macintosh computers and has as many features. The problem was that they were too powerful for their size.
They were also too big. The original Message Pads could not fit easily in shirt pockets, unlike similar devices of the day (the Tandy Zoomer, for instance; we'll cover that shortly). It needed a case. In the early and mid 1990's, it was not unusual to see professionals with Newton cases hanging from their belts.
The Newton was, in fact, a tablet computer.
Not so the first true PDA's, though like the Newton they were not originally named such. Various companies had in fact been making digital assistants in various forms since the early 1980's. There was software that would allow some of the early notebook computers such as the Tandy Model 100 series to even act as large digital organizers. The first devices that truly fit the name PDA, even in function, were much smaller though in no way less powerful. One such line was the Tandy Zoomer.
The Zoomer was developed in the early 1990's, partly by the team that would go on to release the even more successful Palm line. When the Zoomer was being developed, the term PDA didn't exist; it was a handheld computer that relied on pen or stylus input. The operating system it ran was a variation of the PC-GEOS desktop running on top of a very lightweight DOS. While it was not as powerful as the Newton, it was in many ways a kindred spirit.
It was also a commercial flop.
And sadly the Newton did not do much better. It's biggest problem was that it was orphaned. It was not a "PDA", even if Apple's CEO coined the term. But it had been deliberately crippled so as not to interfere with their flagship Macintosh line. It never really fit either category.
In reality, the Newton wasn't a PDA. It was a tablet computer, more or less.
So, for that matter, are almost all PDA's.
For instance, I have a GoType keyboard for my Palm IIIxe that turns it into a more powerful computer than my old Macintosh Plus. The Palm OS, though, is interesting in that it really is just a fancy GUI on top of a database, and aside from some fancy applications, doesn't really have a file system like most other operating systems. It's still a computer, as it fits all the classic definitions of one. It's just a small one.
When Microsoft came up with the Windows CE and the Pocket PC concept, they didn't hide behind fancy terms; they were computers, are computers. Some are PDA-like, some are clamshell, some are regular computers, laptop and otherwise.
So you see this becomes a real mess in a hurry.
Okay, we can safely assume that they are all computers. Then why can't we just say that they are all computers? We're letting the corporate powers that be decide? Of course we are! That makes it easier for us to pigeon hole the devices, and it certainly makes it easier to dispose of them when the time comes. After all, they aren't computers.
But they are computers. and capable of a lot more than they want us to think. All of the essentials are there; processors, RAM, storage, methods of input, displays.
You can call it a wireless tablet, sure, go ahead. That little Windows CE laptop can be called an Internet device. And the thing in your pocket? Sure, it's a PDA.
Rest assured, though, they have all the power found in computers that we coveted just a few years back.
Ergo, computers.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


For me, a netbook really represented a satellite computer, one that would work with a larger computer, that would be easier to carry but would not be left with the burden of the work.
Many viewed the early laptops as just that, satellite computers. As each successive generation of computer became smaller, so did our satellite machines.
Now we enter a period where satellites have the potential to be our primary devices. This arises as the nature of computing is changing. Quite a bit of work has been done to create an environment that these devices interact with, the Internet. At its heart, the very essence of cloud computing is making it easier for the user to do day to day task.
The trouble is, quite a bit of the creativity that defined the Internet is also vanishing as a consequence. Personal web pages have given way to blogs, and the information contained therein has likewise diminished. Social networking sites allow us to share a few hundred characters of information at a time. Concurrent with this is a surge in netbook and tablet sales. Meanwhile, the desktop computer has begun to disappear, relegated more and more to business and various institutional uses.
We live in a time when our phones can do more than our laptops did just a few years ago.
But there appears to be a price to pay for this.
Many have noted that mobile and personal computing have become more consumption and less creation. While there are still many places that allow us to be seen and heard, the focus of many of these newer devices seems to be consumption. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. However, market forces, always working in their cold, methodical way, are shaping our choices for us, and if left unchecked, will continue to erode the ability to create, collaborate and contribute.
Which brings me to my initial point. As I play with my mini netbook, I've discovered that with some simple modifications, it can create content adequately enough to be almost ready to be used on its own; it is its own machine. The satellite becomes a world.
The tools to do this are very basic; really, just a light word processor and a better browser. Software for tasks such as image manipulation can be found, and is perhaps a long way off in its basic, Windows CE, form. However, just the addition of a means to create text and move that up to the Internet is powerful enough.
To that end, I am planning on trying a little experiment. I am considering trying to live off the netbook alone for a few days. Currently, I have not set a date for this, but it will probably run for a period of a few days or a week. If I'm right, it may open doors for those who cannot afford larger, more powerful machines. It may, indeed, put the Internet back into the hands of those who use and depend upon it.
It certainly is worth a try.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Control & Usability

Ease of use versus level of control. This is a bit of a conundrum. While I'm a believer in open source and free software, I am also concerned about how to make it easy. Make no mistake, easy to use software is seldom free. There are exceptions, of course. The Sugar interface found on the OLPC XO-1 laptop is very easy to use. However, installing it requires certain skills, namely a better than average knowledge of Linux. Perhaps this will be addressed soon. In the meantime, however, we are left using the lightweight operating systems that come on our various devices, and this makes for some strange bedfellows.

For instance, While I am not a particularly big fan of Microsoft, I will say that I like Windows CE, though the lack of true productivity applications concerns me. This operating system is the standard on most of the current batch of lightweight, inexpensive netbooks coming out of Asia, such as the one I am currently using. There is plenty of potential here.

Then there are all the Android tablets that are appearing on the market. They are exceedingly easy to use. What they lack are productivity applications; whereas Windows CE has relatively few, the Android field is almost non-existent.

Yet both operating systems are easy to use.

The alternative is always Linux, which has the trade-off of being harder to learn yet comes with plenty of applications. This could be resolved in two ways -

make Linux easier to use


create more Windows CE/Android productivity applications.

This is surely something that needs to be revisited, time and time again.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Getting There

I'm typing this on Cody, my Sylvania "bento" laptop. I do really like this machine, even if it has a few quirks. I am still using Windows CE on it as well, since it does run natively just fine. It's that that has gotten me to think; what is the message I need to convey? More to the point; what matters more, the goal of getting more people online or the way they get there?As it is, this little computer is perfectly capable right out of the box, even if it lacks a few necessary pieces of software (it really needs a text editor or light word processor, for instance). It might not be able to do a lot of high powered operations, but it is certainly the equal or better of some computers just a few years older.

The problem is, of course, that progress marches on and it is a given that this machine will be left behind if adequate updates can't be had. Microsoft seems to be heading down the Windows Mobile road, and possibly leaving CE behind. Which is a shame, of course; Windows CE 6 is quite a capable operating system. And the one true competitor, Android, is really designed for touch screens, and also lacks simple things like editors.

This brings us back to getting there.The Internet thinks it needs to change all the time. Websites constantly push new standards, and everything from browsers to operating systems to hardware have to play a game of catch-up. When Cody was unwrapped in early December, some of its Internet software was already obsolete.

Will this cycle continue?

Of course it quite probably will.

And that is a bit sad.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Making It Easy, Making It Work

As I've written before, the Android OS is beautiful, yet really not particularly useful for older computers; between its Linux kernel that requires Pentium series processors, to the lack of device drivers for older equipment, as it comes out of the box it still has a long way to go. There is also a lack of real applications that can store information locally on the device itself.
While I haven't tried it, it seems that the Chrome OS seems to have the same short comings.
Yet, they both have real potential. They have low RAM overhead, they can run on somewhat older equipment, and both have real easy to understand interfaces.
Definitely a step in the right direction.
What is desperately needed is that sort of thinking applied to more mainstream Linux. Imagine a lightweight interface similar to Android or Chrome running on trim, yet somewhat complete, kernel that supports older equipment. An entire generation of machines could be made useful once more.
Now imagine going one step further and taking this thinking to the other primary processor of that period, the PowerPC. Imagine an old iBook clamshell running a modern operating system effectively and smoothly.
Imagine if this interface could support lightweight Linux applications that normally require X Windows and would be capable of real work.
That is the direction we need to go.
Certainly sounds easy enough...

It's Not A Big Request, Really...

For the past few weeks, I have been curious about the two Google operating systems, Android and the Chrome OS. For the task of repuposing old computers, both seemed to hold much promise.
Of course, that was only on the outside. After playing with Android on my ThinkPad T23, I am no longer sure. It really does seem to be tailored for mobile devices only, not computers. It had a hard time with most basic tasks that would be handled on a regular computer. Most of the applications designed for it are meant really network centered. In fact, the entire operating system seems to lean that way.
Sadly, it seems that Chrome is also designed around doing everything on the Internet. Without a connection, as one commentor wrote, you essentially have a brick.
But the interface on both seems so lovely. Android, especially, is lightweight and somewhat nimble. Its complete lack of support for older hardware, however, is problematic.
This brings us full circle back to a more regular Linux with a windows manager.
Which is sad.
Not because most of these window managers are bad, not at all. What's sad is the fact that what the novice computer user needs is a simple, easy to understand interface. Android and Chrome have that. The ones that have that in Linux tend towards top heavy in requirements.
Years ago, there was a GUI known as PC GEOS. This was a derivative of the original 8-bit GEOS that was released in the late 1980's for the Apple II and Commodore 64 series of computers. Unlike its 8-bit roots, PC GEOS was very advanced and modern and boasted some amazing features. One of those features was a scaled interface. The user selected the level of interface they desired, from beginner to advanced. This made for a great way to advance at a pace that the user was comfortable with.
That's what we need now.
And it needs to be lightweight if this is to work.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


On the 11th of March, 2011, an earthquake measuring a monstrous 8.9 magnitude struck off the north eastern coast of Japan, the closest major city being Sendai. It was powerful enough to move the Japanese coast line 2.5 meters (8 feet).
Those are the facts.
Japan has always struck me as perhaps the most modern country on the planet. Everything about its major cities is glistening high tech. It has a rail system to be envied. Everywhere, you see people using mobile phones. The Internet is nearly ubiquitous. The Japanese people have always struck me as resolute, determined. They seem to work towards goals with powerful determination. For them, solving a problem is paramount.
As a result of past earthquakes, Japan has some of the strictest building codes on the planet. Almost everything about their culture has to do with the common good of its people; simply doing the right thing.
In that sense I envy them.
There was very little warning of this disaster. That's the nature of earthquakes; they strike with callous disregard. Even more callous is what was visited on the populace a short time later - what the earthquake failed to do, the tsunami accomplished. Entire cities, towns and villages were wiped from the countryside.
Yet these people are risilient. They rise up, brush themselves off and get back to the business of rebuilding. And each time they rebuild, they rebuild stronger. Adversity breeds determination, hardship breeds resilience.
I have only a few friends in Japan, and I'm afraid of ruining this as I attempt to say it, but to the people of Japan, blessings. Long may you endure.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thoughts With Alpha

I'm taking a few minutes to work on Alpha, my ThinkPad 760xd that is running my own Ubuntu flavor, "Wushi" (which, if you haven't been keeping up, is based upon Ubuntu 6.06 "Dapper"). This laptop runs remarkably solid; IBM put quite a bit of work into the 700's back in the 1990's, and this machine is a fine example.

I chose to be here tonight because I feel that it is important from time to time to simply concentrate on the work that is being done. Alpha is set up to do just that; it not only serves as a test machine, it is also a working computer, my main out-and-about computer. Since making the philosophical commitment to portable computing, I feel that a tougher computer is better in the field. This isn't to say that my other two ThinkPads are not tough; they certainly are. However, the 500 is still a work in progress and my X41 has become my primary machine. Alpha has been needing to be used anyway.

I'm writing this in AbiWord 2.4.4, a lightweight open source word processor. It works wonderfully as well, though I also do a lot of writing in Vim, a text editor that runs both in console and in an x-window. Again, lightweight and fast, and it doesn't get in your way. However, command line editors are an acquired taste, and for those of who remember CP/M and DOS, the transition is a natural one.

The one thing that these lightweight systems allow me to do best is to simply concentrate on the work. There are a few individuals who prefer to work strictly in command line for that reason. I prefer a little of both. My ThinkPad 500 runs DR-DOS and will probably soon be getting a Linux install, and in all likelihood will be used primarily in CLI. Alpha, on the other hand, has IceWM and seems to run just fine with it.

These are ultimately tools. Find one you like.
(By the way, this is also being posted from Alpha...)

Just A Few Late Night Thoughts

I've had a lot happen in my plans lately for getting older computers active again and getting them online; some of it good, some bad, all thought provoking.
First were my hopes of Android x86 as a way to salvage older laptops. It runs great on the minimum specs computers (as long as it is run Pentium II or equivalent and up), but is too immature right now. On my test machine (an IBM ThinkPad T23), it had to boot in VESA mode and then seemed to be unable to find any peripheral attached to it. Of course, this was "out-of-box", so to speak. It also is clearly designed for mobile devices and lacks basic applications normally associated with more modern computer operating systems. Otherwise, it is lovely. In short, it has promise but still has a long way to go. This leaves Linux as our best hope.
This brings me to another thought; am I being so driven by my innate desire to steer clear of proprietary operating systems as to be potentially ignoring the bigger issue, that being getting struggling families set up with usable computers and then onto the Internet? There is nothing wrong with Windows, Macintosh or Windows CE, for that matter. My one concern is that this tends to influence future choices. But a tool is a tool is a tool, and in the end, I really should be sure of my own motivations. I still believe that open source is the best way to go, but I shouldn't let this preference blind me.
Finally, I find myself thinking about how far personal computing has come in just the past 25 years, let alone since 1976, when two buddies started a computer company that changed the world. One thing that has puzzled, and indeed troubled, me is the lack of programming software bundled in the large commercial operating systems today. Both Windows and Macintosh no longer have compilers or run-time environments as a feature. When Microsoft and IBM were peddling their earlier DOS versions, they included BASIC, and for a while one could get HyperCard whenever you bought a Macintosh. These seem to have ended. The Apple II line had BASIC built in, and the famous Tandy 100/200/600 line had it as well as some basic applications built into the ROM. Linux and most open source software have compilers built in, but these are not for the beginner or casual user. Having these languages built in allowed the user to fashion their own applications and truly own the experience. Why are they no longer included? What has driven that? I have my own ideas, but really can't be certain.
I do know, however, that it's late and I need to turn in. These problems, these thoughts, will have to wait another day.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Getting Out Of Its Way

I'm comfortable with command line interface (CLI), as many of us who have been computing since the early days are. From CP/M to DOS and into the various Unix/Linux branches, I've learned most of the basic and some advanced commands to get the job done.
Today, I still use CLI, usually on a couple of my rather vintage machines (my Tandy 102 and 200 and my Atari Portfolio) as well as my 1993 ThinkPad 500, which happily runs DR-DOS and BasicLinux. I like these operating systems because they are light, nimble and offer you an extraordinary amount of control over not only the software but the computer itself.
That I am comfortable doing so is a testimony to the fact that I have spent years studying and playing with these things, and to a certain extent hesitate to give the older ones up. It allows me to use computers that would otherwise be thought of as obsolete.
Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the arcane, of course.
Nowhere is this a greater concern than in the task of trying to help disadvantaged families gain access to the Internet. Yes, they can use Windows or Macintosh, but a simpler approach is needed. What must be remembered here is that the primary task is helping the studen's and their families get this access. First and foremost, that is the goal.
Let's keep that in mind while we look at the subject of interfaces and operating systems.
What is really needed is an operating system that has a very small learning curve. While it is true that both of the major OS's in the world of home computers, Windows and Macintosh, are fairly intuitive, the simple fact remains that some skills are still necessary to do some of the more complex tasks.
What is needed is the approach that mobile computing has taken. Apple's iOS and Google's Android get out of the user's way once they are running. Both are somewhat light with system resources and very intuitive. However, both are limited, and in the case of iOS, proprietary. Windows Mobile platform supposedly offers the same, but they appear to be headed in the same direction as their Windows CE operating system, which held so much promise but failed to live up to it.
Sugar, the desktop environment that was initially developed for the OLPC XO-1 laptop, holds more promise than ever in providing an environment that stays out of the way of the user. While you can still learn how to customize and modify Sugar, it is not necessary to know how to do so out-of-the-box, so to speak; anyone can pick up an XO-1 and pretty much figure how everything is supposed to work.
Closer to the goal, but still not there. Perhaps it is too daunting.
The perfect system would run so far in the background as to be invisible to the user; they don't know, nor do they care. Or even need to.
It would be intuitive, and evolve with the user; as their skills grow, it allows more access.
They would truly own it. It would not be proprietary nor licensed. Once they have it, they have it. Would support be available? Yes. How would that be done? I haven't a clue at this point.
But that is the direction we need to be heading in. It has to be about what the computer is being used for and not about the computer itself.

Monday, February 21, 2011

No Child Left Behind (On The Internet)

A few months back, Jamie and I were trying to get our girl Breanna's computer to work with an education website that her school mandates. Now, please note; mandates. In order for her to complete a good amount of her coursework, she had to use this site. Furthermore, parents can monitor their child's progress there as well. We had moved Breanna's big Toshiba laptop to Ubuntu 10.4 due to an infestation of colossal proportion and everything seemed to be working fine.
Except for that site.
It seems that it was having a hard time with Linux, even though we did meet the minimal browser requirements (Firefox 3.5). In fact, when the computer was running Windows Vista, the Firefox install refused to run the site properly as well. She had to use Internet Explorer 7. In all other aspects, this two year old laptop met the minimum requirements, yet it still had issues.
On a whim, I decided to try an install of Google Chrome for Ubuntu... and it worked, even though Chrome is not on the list of supported browsers.
This rather concerns me.
Being as this is a public school, my mind immediately latched onto the notion that this is, in effect, a sort of tax on the parents. It has been a given that in order for students to succeed today that there needs to be a computer in the house. Now, thanks to sites like this, not only do there need to be computers with these families but they need to be fairly up to date as well. At a minimum, this may incur a once every few years outlay of a few hundred dollars. For most families, this is not a big deal, but what lousy messages it sends -
1. That computers have to be replaced while they are still fairly new. In our mass consumption society, this is already a problem, and we really should be moving our future generations away from that model.
2. That you need to have major operating systems, namely Windows and Macintosh. I hold nothing against either of these, but it certainly determines the future of the computing in that household.
3. It locks the online site down for everybody but those who have the correct, usually demanding and always weighty, software.
4. Lower earning working class families are reduced to using other computers available to them. This usually means library computers, which typically can only be used for thirty minutes, and in today's economy, many libraries are being forced to close early due to budgetary concerns.
In short, this all boils down to a very small but loud message; if you don't have the means, you've got a problem.
I don't want to sound rhetorical, but this is extremely unfair. At a time when the US has fallen behind in many scholastic measures, we don't have the foresight to consider that a sizable chunk of the school-going population lacks the means to access necessary tools. While not quite the same as denying pencils and paper to these students, it is in fact not too far from it.
This is a bit of a tragedy.
What can school systems do to rectify this?
If they are already locked into this service, there really is very little.
However, there may be a different approach.
Imagine a CD. You boot from it, and it has its own OS (a Linux, say; to be honest, I'm biased, but for good reason). This OS has only the tools needed in order for the student to access the educational websites plus some light websurfing. In addition, it has a small office suite.
The student has to have either a floppy drive, USB thumb drive or SD card as well. This will store the configuration data (encrypted, of course). It also backs up a copy of the configuration data to the website. This removable data is also needed to copy documents such as reports; again, this will be mirrored on the web.
The OS and browser software needs to be stripped down to increase its performance, since chances are it is going to be used on machines that are not quite up to date, and in fact may be more than just a few years old.
There should exist a seamless integration between this software and the website. To be certain, on the existing sites, a fair amount of testing will be needed, but future sites should be written with this in mind.
For those of us with computers that are less than five years old this seems like much ado about nothing. Surely, this is tilting at windmills, right?
I have surfed the Web with a computer that has 16mb of RAM. I routinely use one with 96mb of RAM and a 166 MHz processor. It can be done.
And it has to, for those amongst us who have no choice.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Tiered Internet

I few months back I wrote about what older computers should be capable of. Now, let's look at the other side of the equation and explore online access in its purest forms. And yes, that is meant to be plural.
We know that older computers can do pretty much everything we ask them ; that they did these things before and we were happy should pretty much prove this. I know of a few people who access the Internet on what can only be described as truly ancient computers, and to them I say bravo. The question becomes one of access; what are you willing to live with, what are you willing to live without?
If we look at the Internet as a tiered system, it makes more sense. This is not the same tier system that has been proposed by the ISP's, let's be clear, though it certainly has much in common.
Multimedia Internet - At the top is going to be the bulk of high bandwidth sites, the ones that are going to tax software and hardware and therefore require newer operating systems and equipment. These are sites like Facebook, YouTube and any site that relies heavily upon video and software such as Flash.
Basic Internet - The next layer down are more static sites, ones that may have plenty of graphics but much less Flash and video usage. Some modern protocols may be found here, but they are not as common and tend to be a bit more subtle. A good deal of the Internet still lives here, the bulk in fact.
Another layer down we find the limits of older HTML. Everything here is static, though animated GIF's Static Internet - are still found and have been here since the Internet exploded in the mid-1990's. The old GeoCities lived here, as did most of your original DIY sites.
Simple Internet - Down further. This is the earliest incarnation of the World Wide Web, the Internet today. Completely static, few images, and those that can be found exists in the form of links.
Shell Access - Finally, the underbelly; this is the very backbone of the Internet. You can access it through a terminal application, and be prepared to know Unix commands. There is an amazing community here of hardcore fanatics, and you can still do quite a bit here, including email and surfing the Internet.
Now, let's compare these layers to the categories I created in "You Got On The Internet How?!?".

Multimedia Internet

Basic Internet

Static Internet

Simple Internet

Domain of Shells

0-8 years






9-13 years





14-18 years




19 + years



So, again, it comes down to whatever you want to do. Knowing what your computer is truly capable of is the trick. Chances are, it is capable of far more than you think.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

LiteBook Revisited

As I move forward past the ThinkPad 760XD project, I once again find myself tinkering with the ThinkPad 500, and again, LiteBook has been resurrected. This time, moving forward with the BasicLinux install.
So far, aside from the original mouse problem that was so prohibitive, things seem to be moving along nicely. With a full 12mb RAM at my disposal, the floppy version of BasicLinux works fine. There are some network issues that will no doubt need to be addressed (possibly even wireless), but beyond that, it seems to be capable.
Which is all ironic; I've gone full circle back to IBM machines and back to that project that seemed to be a dead end.
Curious as to where this leads.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Race to the Bottom - Installing Ubuntu on the ThinkPad 760XD

The ThinkPad 760XD is a marvelous laptop. When it was devised, it was the flagship of IBM's ThinkPad 700 line. Large screen, solid construction. Typical IBM thinking went into it. One of the most unusual features is a keyboard that tilts up when the laptop is opened. By pushing the latch releases forward, you can lift up the keyboard and have access to the internals, so swapping things like the hard drive and battery are a relatively easy. Apple has aesthetics, IBM ease of maintenance.
This unit has an interesting history. It was part of a batch of government surplus, and found its way to the local thrift store. The operating system it came with was a very stripped down Windows 98, so stripped down, in fact, as to be inefficient.
There is also a very strong possibility that this ThinkPad is an ex-NASA unit, based upon the licensing of the original Windows 98 software.
Sadly, we will never be able to confirm that; the Windows install went buggy (go figure).
This brought up a few possibilities. I own a Windows NT install, but it would not look very good on the ThinkPad. Jamie and I also have some Windows 98 disks, but I really didn't want to go there again. So, instead, I decided to try something very daring; a stripped down Ubuntu install, complete with X Windows.
First, let me state that this is not something that the faint of heart or the impatient should try. It will take a long time to do the actual install, and then some basic linux skills to fine-tune it.
I have had some success with minimal Ubuntu installs before, though. While a regular Ubuntu install requires, at a bare minimum, 256mb RAM, I managed to get one custom install, Ubuntu 6.06 Dapper Drake with IceWM, down to 48mb RAM on a 233mHz Compaq laptop.
When I began to play with Ubuntu on older machines, I discovered a number of great resources. The first was the Ubuntu Minimal RAM How-To page at Bino na Biso.
Finally, for inspiration, there is K Mandla's site, "Motho ke Motho ka Botho".
Aside from K Mandla's experiments, this machine is even lower spec than ones the previous two sites dealt with. In a sense, this was unreasonable; this was a race to the bottom.
The 760XD has more RAM than the Compaq did at the beginning, 64mb, but not only a slower processor (Intel Pentium MMX, 166 mHz) but also it cannot boot from CD. Suffice it to say, a little cleverness would be needed.
The first step was to find a boot disk. I chose the Smart Boot Manager floppy. It was a little deceptive when put into use; initially, it reports an error when trying to boot from the CD. Press enter again (and again, if necessary), and it will boot.
But what OS should we use? With a machine of this age, it would be tempting to install something like DSL or Puppy Linux. Both are fine operating systems, but I desired something a little different. Tiny Core Linux was another possibility, but had issues of its own.
No, I wanted Ubuntu again.
Once more, I chose the Ubuntu 6.06 minimal install disk. Prior to actually performing the installation, I inserted my wireless card, in this case an Enterasys RoamAbout. Now I began the installation; boot Smart Boot Manager, select CD (hit enter twice, ignore the error). Load Ubuntu start screen.
At the prompt, go for a "server" install. Automatically, it senses that there is not a lot of RAM here. There are a few things it wants to know; what language, what keyboard, etc. Then, it prompts for the partition.
I should mention that it was at this stage that one of my latest minimal install distros failed; for some reason, 9.10 has a problem with finding the hard disk. 6.06 did not, and actually seems to work better with older equipment (if anybody from Canonical is reading this, please keep this in mind).
Now the real installation begins, and is going to take a long time; around 2 hours. It might appear to stall at around thirty minutes; it hasn't. It was at this point that I literally nodded of (it was very late when I began) only to awake over thirty minutes later to discover that the install was continuing. Eventually, you end up with a usable command line Ubuntu.
Following the instructions at Bino na Biso, I went in as super user or root...
sudo su
and uncommented the source file for Aptitude using vi -
vi /etc/apt/sources.list
For the novice, once changes are made, the command to write the changes and exit is ":wq" (don't use the quotation marks).
Run apt-get update, and we're ready.
Piece of cake... right?
Not quite. But, it would be going much faster now. While the initial install took over two hours, this would take around thirty minutes.
To get the applications and environment I wanted, I used the following verbose command-
apt-get install xorg icewm XDM xterm abiword DFM kazahakase
This would give us X Windows, the IceWM desktop manager, the XDM display manager (all of which are really needed to make the desktop usable). You'll need XTerm to launch the applications in this very simple environment. AbiWord is a nice lightweight word processor. DFM is a file manager.
Most important there is Kazehakase, the web browser. More on that in a bit.
Once these were installed (took around thirty minutes), I launched X Windows for the first time...
...and was greeted to an off-center screen that was pinched. What went wrong?
Well, it has to do with the video card. The ThinkPad 760XD uses a Trident video card. Normally, the Trident driver found in Xorg has no problems with this. However, as it turns out, there are issues with older versions. In this case, a couple of lines in the xorg.conf file needed to be changed. Again, we'll use vi. Make sure that you're logged in as super user (just sudo should be fine) and use the following command -
vi /etc/X11/xorg.conf
There were two things that I wanted to modify under the monitor and screen sections, the vertical refresh rate and the color depth. The default value range for the vertical refresh is 43-60. I bumped the upper value; 43-75. Moving down to the screen section, the default color depth was 24; I dropped it to 16 (this probably wasn't necessary, but I wanted to eliminate any problems).
Save file, reboot.
This time, it booted to the XDM login screen. Once my username and password were entered, it took me to a full 1024x768 resolution screen. You can use XTerm (you'll see it in the menu bar or by right clicking on the blank desktop) to open applications, just by typing in their names. DFM makes this a little easier if you desire, just open it the same way.
Back to Kazehakase. This lightweight branch off of the Mozilla tree is very light and spry. However, right out of the box, the version that Dapper uses is a bit out of date and needs one last file to run. I discovered this by trying to log in to Google. You'll need a personal security manager. The one that works for Kazehakase is, of course, Mozilla's. You can now do this from XTerm in the comfort of X Windows. Go to root (sudo) and apt-get install mozilla-psm.
In the end, what I ended up with was a computer that is a bit slow (but still faster than my clamshell iBook running OS X 10.2.8) that is able to access the Internet and can do light chores. To say the least, I'm pleased. There are real possibilities here in this race to the bottom; stay tuned.
And we shall dub it "Wushi-Buntu..."
(I want to thank the people who really pioneered the ideas here and gave me the necessary notions. I may not know you personally, but to Ingo, K Mandla and PsychoCat, many thanks for the inspiration and information).

Friday, February 4, 2011

Racing to the Bottom

I am here right now courtesy a 13 year old laptop running Ubuntu. The laptop is is an IBM ThinkPad 760XD, one of their premier models when it was released. It is typical of IBM's thinking, for lack of a better term. Everything is easy to access; it's like a Volkswagon. Apple had aesthetics, but IBM had ease of maintenance down to an art.
At any rate, 166 MHz Pentium MMX, 64mb RAM, and here I am.
More later...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Here, We Are Never Truly Gone

I was unsure as to whether I should post this here or on "The Robblog". I chose here, because of what I feel is an aspect of the Internet that seems new and wonderful and not unusual at all.
Early in January, my friend Janice Carder passed away after a near seven year battle with cancer. She was a good hearted person, but those final years were not easy for her, or for that matter anyone suffering from the likes of it.
Yet somehow, she managed to stay in contact with friends and loved ones through social networking, primarily through Facebook and one of her favorite pastimes there, Farmville. She didn't really neglect anyone.
For many of us, there is a tendency to dismiss the Internet as the perfect tool for shut-ins to avoid social contact and interaction. To a degree, I suppose that's true. In Janice's case, however, it allowed her to expand her social circles even while she was unable to leave her room. This was not a choice she wanted; this was circumstance. But she did it, and developed new friends, and plenty of them.
We could be dismissive of these "friends", asking how good a friend can we be with someone who we've never seen or spoken with in person. Perhaps that's a bad measure of friendship. In the most basic definition, a friend is someone with whom we find pleasure and who shares of themselves.
In that sense, we all have friends, now everywhere.
All of this possible by the global connections afforded us via the Internet. For me, that is the most important thing that the Internet provides us.
As I write these words, we have witnessed, in the past two weeks, one government brought down, another one teetering, all due to social networks. No guns nor tanks nor bombs; the people Tweeted their way to revolution. So powerful is this notion, so powerful that the government of Egypt felt compelled to shut it down. Even here in the United States, there are people who fear the Internet enough that they would like the same ability. Like a wildfire, though, doing so will only serve to strengthen the change it has wrought.
This is the power of communication.
Which brings me back to my dear friend Janice. Her husband, Chris, held an online memorial for her on Farmville the night of January 29th, allowing those who could not attend her physical memorial a chance to remember Janice. Sadly, I was unable to attend that, but I am sure that many did. Through means digital, Janice was and is. She is not truly gone. She lives on in her friends, and her memory has left traces across this digital medium. Indeed, many others have left similar traces. But, for me, hers is the most personal to date.
See you on the Internet.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Limits of Older Tech

I am a real fanatic when it comes to older technology; this goes without saying, considering the name of this blog. However, and I need to stress this here, I am more interested in practical applications for older technology than just a hobbyist approach.

In other words, making actual use of them.

The trouble is that older tech is prone to problems that simply cannot be addressed easily. Nowhere was this more apparent than in my attempts to update a 1993 era ThinkPad 500 to twenty first century standards. It just couldn't be done, and I have to admit a bit of heartbreak there, because it is such a nice, sturdy old machine. Recently, I managed to get a good, proper install of Windows 98SE onto my ThinkPad 760XD, only to glitch it. Sadly, this was even after installing WiFi and a fairly modern browser. But at 64MB RAM and a 166mHz CPU, there is only so much that can be done with it by modern standards.

That's not to say that the machine is doomed. It certainly isn't, as options still exist. But, with a RAM limit of 96MB, it is going to be a challenge.

Truth be told, they do reach a point where they simply cannot be modernized any further. They are victims of age. My ThinkPad 500 runs Windows 95 beautifully, and the 760XD does the same with 98SE. There are Linux and other open source distros out there that could aid both machines, but even they have limits, and in many cases development has simply ceased on them. You may end up with a more modernized operating system, but in the end, they get left behind by the steady march of technology.

At least surplus technology is moving ahead as well. In 1999, a typical surplus laptop might have been a 386 or even a 486 equipped machine (or, in Mac parlance, a 68030 class). Today, Pentium III's and Celerons are frequently found, as are G3's and 4's. They are far newer than the two aforementioned ThinkPads, and subsequently more usable.

The notion, however, that older machines should simply be neglected bothers me. Perhaps in the end, you reach a limit, and once you run into that wall, you simply cannot go any further.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

This Is Important

I'm typing this on my newest laptop, an IBM ThinkPad X41, a lightweight model that is pretty solid and a reliable machine. It is the latest of many portable computers that I have owned (and a number I do still).
It is what the personal computer was supposed to have been.
When Alan Kay came up with the idea for the Dynabook in 1969, his idea was always for a computer that was portable, that could be carried easily. It was the genesis.
Kay's ideas, however simple it appears, was never really achieved by modern computers. In the concept's simplicity lay the very root reason it has never been achieved; the software systems proposed were the very foundations of the modern operating system and subsequent applications. Within its simplicity was the future.
But that was never the goal.
The environment, eventually known as SmallTalk, would lead to the GUI. But in its inception, it was simply a way of creating the tools needed to make the Dynabook work.
You see, the idea behind the Dynabook was primarily educational; Alan Kay wanted to make a "personal computer for children of all ages". It was about play, of learning. Entertainment was always a feature of this, but not to the extent that home computing experiences today. It was about expanding one's horizons.
I agree with Alan Kay in that it has not met the original goal. But we're closer than we have ever been.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

They Seem To Be Missing The Point...

While I am not a big fan of Microsoft, I do like a couple of their products and have to use their Windows platform quite a bit. My IBM ThinkPad X41, for instance, uses Windows XP, and while I grumble frequently about how bloated an OS it can be, the version that is installed on the machine (apparently the For Legacy Products version) is pretty nimble and somewhat thinner. My older ThinkPad, the 760XD, runs Windows 98SE, mainly to be a backup for my Jornada.
Which brings me to my main point. The Jornada uses Windows CE, as does my little subnotebook. The version found on the subnote is 6.0, the latest. Windows CE is an interesting product. For one, it is light, no doubt due to its primary mission of being used on "gadgets"; PDA's, smart phones and portable computers. It is almost always ROM based, and always boots very quickly.
It is almost a forgotten product, or at best the target of abuse.
Yet, it was the operating system that was chosen for these subnotebooks that are flooding the market at usually less than $150 a unit. As I write these words, they are beginning to develop a small, cult-like following. These computers are selling.
But for some reason, the rest of the world hasn't noticed, it seems.
It no doubt has to do with price. These computers are viewed as cheap, after all. The one I own, however, works flawlessly.
What they need are applications. Note; I say "applications", not apps. They could also use slightly better support, but again, for the price, that may be a long shot. Based upon what I've read, developing Windows CE applications is not that hard, and I may yet give it a shot.
The open source community has also noticed these computers. The Android OS is already an alternative operating system for them (in some places, apparently, you can buy them with Android already installed). Debian has also been ported; how long will it be before Ubuntu develops a gadget version, I wonder.
But the thing is, there is room for development here. These little machines have plenty of potential. Their distributors seem to be missing the point and a real opportunity.