Thursday, February 28, 2013

The March

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

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Bridging The Digital Divide - The Hardware Problem

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