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.