Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Limited Use Computers

There's a trend in computing at the moment around limited use computers. People don't seem to be looking at what they could do. They're looking at what they can do. This presents somewhat of a problem for me.

If people are no longer yearning for more and looking for ways that things could be improved, they're essentially saying "it's good enough". This is in direct conflict with my mantra - "there must be a better way".

I have a friend looking at low cost low power machines for a sort of distributed personal server set up with an eye for privacy. He's not happy with what was revealed about the NSA so he's saying to himself "there must be a better way". Encrypted email, offfsite back up, even search nodes could all be done on these cheap machines.

Meanwhile, I've reading been forums and the like and I find myself kind of..... disgusted with what people are willing to put up with. Take the MS Surface RT for example. Currently retailing in NZ for around $430, the only thing it has going for it is it's integration with an office suite. It can't run other software (which feels like a great big watering down of the MS brand. i.e. the argument for Windows over Linux is that you can't run X piece of software on Linux) except for that available in the apps store specifically for that platform. So to me it feels like a great big giant bust. MS have already written off a major loss on the platform. One of the big indicators here is that apparently (I haven't looked this up myself. It's all hearsay though really... you should take anything in this blog with a grain of salt) there are no other web browsers available on the platform. You're stuck with MS Internet Explorer. This may not be due to a lack of interest in developing for the platform, but rather, which I think is much more likely, that MS have control over deployment mechanisms and so can effectively censor what can be installed and what can't. A trick they learnt from Apple.

However, we know that MS is continuing down this road with more ARM based devices and there are fans of the platform out there. They are those who see the integration of MS Office as important to the exclusion of just about any other task.

Likewise with Chromebooks. Machines designed to run one OS (and specifically, Google's version of the OS). While the machines themselves, the processor, kernel etc. are designed to run fully fledged environments, it seems people are happy with just a browser. Those more ... intensive tasks i.e. those not suited to a cloud environment, aren't catered for.

I remember a few years ago I was pricing up a computer for someone and asked them "What do you want to be able to do on it?". And the response?

"Everything".

It seems like people no longer think in these terms. I think this may be a symptom of information overload - a great nod to Alvin Toffler's book "Future Shock". We are capable in a way that we have never been before. Take the recent blogs about art for example. At what point could a computer geek talk about visual art on a mass scale? The communication that resulted in the background as a result was brilliant. Samara was flattered, Hayley Heartbreak offered to send me a print of the Marmite picture.

While we ourselves are capable, I worry that for commercial interests, that capability is being distilled down into limited corporate interests. The big things that changed the world are likely to not be possible in a less free, more corporate dictated world. The shake up that peer to peer sharing did to the music industry who were talking about, not how to adapt and make things better for their audience in this new medium, but rather, how to kill off the Internet. I would argue that the likes of Youtube could not exist if corporate interests had their way. The fear of IP (Intellectual Property. I object to this term as it implies a certain... exclusive right to knowledge) breach would have stopped any sort of readily usable video streaming technology in its tracks.

In which case, in a very abstract Freedom (though you could argue that the changes we've seen on a societal level make the abstract very concrete) sort of a way, we need to go back to the "Everything" response. Don't be happy with limited use devices. Challenge this thinking. Does it do EVERYTHING you want to do? Does it have room for you to do the things you might want to do in the future?

While the rate of change likely has us upgrading our devices more often, if we care about those things around us that have most of us feeling guilty for our use of consumable packaging and the like i.e. the environment, then our devices should be able to last us 3+ years. In which case, it's not just the now but the future that we need to be worried about. Just think about what's been accomplished in the last 3 years - that rate of change - and double it for the next 3 years. Is that device you're buying going to be able to keep up? If it's stuck within corporate interests, what's the bet they're going to tell you that you have an old obsolete piece of hardware and need to upgrade?

In which case, it's within the consumers best interest to reject limited use computers. Computers aren't appliances - your toaster and jug has probably lasted a few many years. Your iPhone however...

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