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.