Monday, December 31, 2007

2008 the year of techno surprizes

It always amazes me about the speed at which consumer products come and go. When I was born, 1951, radio was king and TV was new stuff. Now we can not only receive broadcast video, we can record and playback stuff on our TV's as well. All of this video technology is changing, we are talking digital broadcast, high-def and of course DVD formats. We have an assortment of equipment from single purpose units to various combo boxes like a TV with built-in DVD/VCR and multi-channel sound. I grew up fussing over audio components and now have to contend with video, computer and with gaming stuff too. Still, today you can't seem to have it all with one integrated system, as there are so many options and interest groups to focus on. This is in reality how we progress, on many fronts at the same time. Are there some things I like to see? Well, in the computer arena, change has been slow because you must have standards so that all the equipment and software can interact and work together. I always thought some good ideas needed to be revisited because the technology has improved. Back in the day quite a few computers had two floppy's. One was used for the operating system and one for data. Today we put it all on one humongous hard drive. When the drive or OS crashes or gets corrupted your data is always doomed to be lost. I thought it be safer to separate the operating system from the data. Since we now have cheap 2 to 8 gig flash drives, why not put the OS on a flash drive. It would be faster, swappable, upgradeable, etc and more than one OS could fit on it if you want. It could be a plug-in card or USB port which is due to be upgraded shortly. Just think, this could be done today and we wouldn't have to wait for a huge and costly solid-state drive to be developed. With some versions of Linux being available as a live-CD, this can be had today if you can boot from your flash drive. Not needing a huge hard drive for the computer itself means computers could be designed a little greener. Then designers can get to work on consumer network data storage units, which in reality should be transparent to any operating system. This network storage unit makes the idea of a "home server" kind of a redundant money making scheme.
Another thing I would like to see is an ethernet/router card (4 jacks) that fits in a PCI slot. Powered by the computer means one less power cord.
Being an old guy, I don't like too many changes but that touch pad on laptops I hope will not make a mouse obsolete, my fingers are not that nimble. I like my Wacom pad with wireless mouse.
Like with race cars, the extreme technology eventually filters down into the lives of the rest of us in some form. We have cell phones that take pictures but we are still leery of picture phones. It would stress out all of us if we had to always keep up appearances when ever we got a call. But with the computer I am surprised we don't have regular phone service with our Internet service standard. Especially if we have cable or DSL.
Well, there are lots of things to pick at in techno land and it remains as exciting as the days of crystal radios and morris code. If you have the bucks you can get there first but after the hype and dust settles is when you see what's the good stuff and what's a pet rock.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

can Ubuntu survive the desktop?

In the latest skirmish for the desktop at least on the Linux front, Ubuntu has the perceived lead. But there is trouble under the surface. Ubuntu which has the Gnome desktop has the continued backing of the Ubuntu designers while Kubuntu which has the KDE desktop is waning. Seems a little thing but KDE seems not able to keep up with the Ubuntu release schedule. KDE is pushing for version 4.0 to be ready for prime time but it is not soon enough for the next release of Ubuntu coming your way. It is not a good thing to have a large part of your user base cut off. I am so surprised at this situation, it begs for the obvious solution. The Ubuntu folks need to return to the Linux idea.
Return to the idea that any desktop or window manager can be used. The present trend toward integrating a particular desktop into Linux results in moving on to a different distribution by users who don't like the desktop. The desktop is not Linux, only the user interface. In the Ubuntu world it is so apparent that users like the whole Ubuntu scenario but want the desktop of their own choosing. If I were trying to insure the continued success of Ubuntu Linux I would pay attention to what users are demanding, GUI choice and a Linux that will run on anything. Personally I believe that both KDE and Gnome desktops are way too big and try to embrace everything all users want. So, what do I recommend? Make Linux better fit to use any desktop or window manager. You might have to sacrifice integration via libraries and devise a more transparent way for the desktop to access Linux. It is all so complicated because all the players are entrenched in their own development worlds. My final stroke has been to use Xfce desktop which is a little less than either KDE or Gnome but is more gratifying to deal with on a daily basis. Linux should not become like Apple or Microsoft, just a third choice of an homogenized product line. What makes Linux is its ability to be configured to the hardware and to the user. One size does not fit all. What direction will Linux makers and users go is so exciting and a work in progress. Computing is still pretty young as technologies go and it isn't the answer to all man's woes as some have hoped but you have to admit cool things are happening.

Monday, December 24, 2007

the personal PC in a multi-media role

In my last blog I took a poke at what was coming in the PC world. There are some psychological battles that have been at the front of all this change. The computer has been for some time a one user at a time kind of machine since the beginning. Even though gamers have managed two players on a machine still it is a one user at a time kind of thing. To put the computer as the center of your entertainment system puts it in a multi-user environment. This crosses the line of the idea of a personal computer as much of the software written for the computer is for one user at a time. If this computer is your only household computer, then the battle for usage time is on. Have computers really gotten so cheap that any household can afford more than one? This usually means that if a computer is to be the media center it must be a dedicated machine, unless you are not sharing with others. But what the heck, even poor me has more than one computer, so I could turn one into a glorified TV/radio/HiFi. Why would you do this anyway?
I think it is the thrill of doing it yourself with things you are familiar with and making all the parts work together. The idea of having one machine handle all of your media also calls into play the possibility of putting it all on a network and being able to access all your files on any computer in the house. And to top it all off, you would probably find that costs for computer parts are comparable to stand alone entertainment system components. You have to think a circuit board, enclosure and power supply vs a circuit board that plugs into a slot on the computer you already own. You might see a cost savings or better quality. Why explore this stuff? I myself like many people are on the cusp of buying a new TV anyway because of the analog to digital changeover coming in 2009. Looking at all the little boxes that set next to my old TV, the VCR, CD player and all the attachments and cords, I have a great desire to integrate it all into one easily changeable system. I am just talking about the basics here but if you have cable TV or satellite then you can guess at the possibilities in front of you. Many are so enthralled by the prospects of a home theater and buy the big screen and surround sound system but it doesn't exclude folks of modest means and smaller egos from enjoying the current technology. Yes, I still enjoy my 19 inch analog TV which still works and will have to buy a new one or buy a conversion box, but I am looking into a digital video tuner card to plug into a computer to see what the costs is like. My computer also has DVD/CD and other media connections that are handy and economical compared to stand alone components. There is one question to be concerned with. Will the computer be reliable enough and maintenance free compared to stand alone components? Should I buy or build a Microsoft, Apple or Linux system? This is up to your preference because each system has its strengths and shortcomings and also tries to lock you into their product lines. What are you willing to deal with when you need support? A great product with a slacker support system makes for a very unhappy customer no matter what the cost of your system. In any event a computer offers a chance to blend the technologies to your needs and a central point of access, less power cords, etc.
Yeah, this is not cutting edge stuff but still, style makers and trend setters can't have all the fun. Eventually an idea becomes practical for the rest of us. Do-it-yourselfers jump on it then before you know it out comes a better consumer product for the masses.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Crystal ball gazing, the view from here

From my rather dim vantage point I couldn't help wondering where all this technology is taking us. I of course am just skimming the surface of things to come. What got me thinking was a Ford car ad on television. It said stuff rather briefly about voice control for Bluetooth gadgets and Microsoft. Two of the most used gadgets in the world today is the TV remote and the cell phone. It had occurred to me that a possibility exists to wed the cell phone, which already has absorbed personal digital assistant (PDA) functions, with the TV universal remote, which controls the home entertainment system. Add to this a connection to the home/business computer and security and environmental systems and you have quite a bit of power at your finger tips. Today this collaboration can be had for a price but as the idea seeps down into the lives of everyday folks we can expect it to become common place. Several things keep us from diving headfirst into this. Controlled access, security, and privacy rights come to mind. Did I forget the obvious, who makes the money? Years ago, personal computers were just a dream, now we want to put our collections of VHS tapes and DVD discs on home servers to network to our PC powered entertainment systems. Soon we will have voice control because we already talk on the cell phone. What's is it to add some software to connect to our systems and issue commands. The iPhone even replaces the mouse with a touch screen and the Wii game control does mouse in 3d space. What's the difference between voice mail and email, probably spellcheck. Spellcheck can be automatic and translated into any language on the fly. There will be and perhaps is, Rosetta stone software for both speech and text. Lets see, Bluetooth and wireless ethernet, what is it we can not connect to? You have to look at what's disappearing and what's appearing. Phone booths, pay phones are rare because of cell phones and flash drives made floppy's obsolete. Laptops can now play games that one time could only be played on a high powered desktop. On various levels we blend the technologies but no one seems to embrace a grand picture at least not in the general publics' eye. Still we dream the dreams through movies that are prophetic and in company boardrooms. When I came on the scene the TV was new and now we will see the technology change from analog to digital. This will allow the technologies to merge closer. All will fight harder to define their digital rights. Rights to control, rights to access, rights to create, suspend, and delete. And of course, who makes the money. What happens to the medium of exchange will also be up for grabs. This is something that concerns us all. Who controls the controllers who control the controls and what is the worth of a human being?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Linux challange, comparing oranges with organges.

I finally got my old standby computer running and connected to my main brain. It's one of those home-brew, first love kind of machines. 850mhz, AMD Duron with 256mb of ram and a ATI Radeon 7200 video card, not an extreme machine by any means. It has Win98se and Wolvix Linux on the 20gig hard drive. You all know Win98se but the Wolvix is one of those smallish Linux distros with the Xfce desktop. Wolvix is Slackware based which is the oldest of the Linux distros and has a reputation of being a challenge even to seasoned Linux users. Wolvix is a mix of the old formats and new Linux strategies. It even has a program called Slapt-get like the Debian's Apt-get to handle program dependencies, a well known problem with the Slackware packaging system. What turned me on to Wolvix was the Xfce desktop. Though it is growing as it matures, Xfce is a light weight GUI compared to KDE and Gnome.
Now I don't want folks to get the idea that I hate KDE or Gnome, I just like and prefer Xfce. The point I am making, once again, is that Linux is a Linux is a Linux. My main brain has WinXP Pro and Xubuntu on it. Comparing Win98se to WinXP Pro is a night/day upgrade kind of thing. Comparing the two newer versions of Linux is almost like a mirror, but Xubuntu is Debian and Wolvix is Slackware. If you listen to some people you'd get the idea of extreme differences. But in reality the main struggle a user handles, besides the package format, is the GUI. The GUI is the look and feel thingy that most users squabble over. If you put your favorite GUI on any of the basic Linuxes, (rpm, debian, or tar.gz), a lot of the hassles of the other guys, seem to go away. The GUI makes the hidden part of Linux somewhat transparent. I say seem to and somewhat because some people are really picky.
Anyway, Xfce makes Xubuntu and Wolvix identical in look and feel. Now debian and tar.gz systems both have their advantages and short comings, also some things might not be available in one format or the other. So you have to examine what's there to see what is the right combo for your needs. And on top of that if you are inclined to tinker with code, you could convert a package to another format or compile the source code to run on your computer. This is all possible because underneath the GUI it is just Linux. In fact, you really don't need the GUI to run Linux at all. The GUI is there for our comfort and enjoyment. I only mentioned Xfce, KDE and Gnome, there are quite a few other window managers for Linux that are popular as well. I am going to end it here, I just want you to realize that the GUI is the look and feel part of the thing we call Linux.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The lay of the Linux Landscape

If I am not mistaken, it was Henry Ford who not only established the production line as a fixture in American industry but also set in the American mind what constitutes product development. The rather linear approach to design and development ultimately concluded with one product, done well, no choice.
The publics answer to this was to develop an after-market industry to provide options that met all the varied taste and desires. Applied to the hardware side of computers, we have a few standards that regulate what a PC is to provide because companies have the ability to introduce new stuff with the intention to capture more of the market. PC hardware is not the "Wild West" it once was. Software on the other hand is a little more fluid than hardware. Just when Apple and Microsoft, which are firmly rooted in the American way of doing things, have established what constitutes an Operating System, someone from the outside invents an Operating System by a different means. This is Linux. With Apple or Microsoft, they provide a product, like it or not, and the after-market provides the options. With Linux it seems the production people and the after-market people are the same people. What brought all this up was that I was browsing the Internet after asking a question. What was the best low resource Linux. I uncovered many, many opinions, probably the result of having too much choice. What stood out was that many people like choice but not the choices. People like that Linux can provide so many solutions yet aren't satisfied because it is not "exactly" what they want. With Apple or Microsoft you buy a product which in reality only gets you permission to use it, and then get after-market add-ons to make up for lacking variety or you acquire Linux. With Linux you yourself have the right to configure it to your hearts content, even to the point of rewriting the code. But there is a point at which choice becomes a headache. Take Ubuntu Linux as an example. Ubuntu is a very good Linux but doesn't quite allow you to seamlessly install any desktop or window manager you want. So folks have developed GUI specific Ubuntu's to provide solutions. There is Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu, and a couple more. Of course some people are not happy with this and demand a unified approach to Ubuntu while still having a choice of GUI's. You have to see that because Ubuntu is so popular folks want to have it yet they want it according to what they think is cool. Other Linux distributions suffer a little less from this malady because they are known to support only a particular GUI. This is a curious thing, if you offer a vast assortment of choices, people complain they can't find what they want. If you offer one thing they put up and shut up.

What my original question points out is that the majority of people interested in Linux want a simple solution like what Apple or Microsoft provides yet still have it tailored to their particular wants. So I would say to the Linux community that Linux needs to allow for a more seamless integration of user choices. Parts or modules that fit well and don't break the system when added or removed.

In Linux user choices have grown so they don't fit on a single CD any more. This is why on-line repositories are so important. Why force users to download a DVD's worth of software only to have it obsoleted by upgrades anyway? Red Hat are you listening? So what that you can't provide every choice on one CD. You can provide a basic working system on one CD and supply options on another or in a repository. I really admire the Linux distributions that are smallish like Wolvix and Puppy Linux. They prove that small can be better and still allow you to add all the bloat you want. Let's see, a basic working system to which you could seamlessly add or delete the stuff you want. That is the best you could get with any product. The smallish Linux distributions do other things that the big, full featured, all inclusive ones don't. Like run great on older and low resource hardware or fit on a jump drive. And it is so much easier to add things than delete them. There is a tendency for software makers to add more functionality and features to programs as they age. This results in your favorite zippy application becoming a resource hog eventually. I heard this was the case with Xfce desktop which is still, in my opinion, pretty lean compared to KDE. It is a tough job to design software to fit such a diverse group as Linux users.

I hope Linux doesn't loose its' "Lego" nature or the "kit" mentality needed by users. I hope Linux doesn't evolve into a product of limited scope and usefulness. I also hope the trend to always put a name on various new configurations (distributions) of Linux doesn't distract from the fact that it's still Linux. User opinion is fuel for the media. Users argue over which GUI is better or leaner. They vie over the package formats and the installation tools and of course drivers and codecs. The result of all this is 400+ different and named distributions of Linux. Is this dissatisfaction with or innovation in Linux? What you can say is that users are a huge part of the dialog that causes Linux to evolve. Even though the business model that produced Apple and Microsoft products is considered the way things are done the world over, it is refreshing to see that things done differently can also produce a viable solution to computing needs. Perhaps the real solution is somewhere between one size fits all and custom made.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Sharing the pain of a new PC

It was an exciting day, my daughter's new laptop PC came today. I was all swelled up with anticipation and emailed her with the news. I asked her if I could unwrap it and play a little with it. Laptops are all contained unless you buy all the extra doodads. I read over all the papers and plugged it in. Soon after turning it on I woke up to the fact this is a MS Windows machine. It has Vista on it and boy was it slow booting up. Well, that was the first boot. It would have been sweet if it weren't for the registration and user agreement screens. I'll let my daughter get into those things, the updates and anti-virus stuff. Yes it has the new Office 2007 and a bunch of other useful software on it and I was well aware of how much it cost to do that. Monopoly produced sticker shock takes the fun out of everything. I really like getting more bang for my buck.
I guess I am a bit old school, I like my desktop over a laptop. The all in one units are a maintenance risk and are fragile. Laptops are a known flight risk, you have to tie them to the desk at work or school. What I do like about laptops is that they are greener than desktops and use less power. I don't know about being recyclable. What is the worst thing about laptops, that finger driven mouse pad. If you have a low level of manual dexterity, like myself, get a real mouse. And those two mouse pad buttons are often too sensitive, making unintended selections. Also the keyboard is a nightmare till you can find all the hidden functions. Let's see, floppies are gone and so are PS/2 ports, so you can't use that "old hardware" without adapters. Progress is getting away from this old boy, I may have to update someday, but not today.

What is in the future of PC's? Just think, a PC today could run Linux or Apple or Microsoft OS's on the same hardware and I think the only difference between them is the ROM for Apple's OS. Then add in solid state flash hard drives (coming soon). The desktop PC will slowly go away and the laptop will become the standard but they must get rid of that stupid mouse pad. Look for the PC to be the base station for your PDA, electronically linking you to all your data, email and phone. Hummm... wearable PC's and voice control are still in the future. We are slowly being assimilated.