Sunday, 13 January 2008

Making computing more personal

No doubt you'll have noticed my enthusiasm for things like the Eee PC, Noahpad and Cloudbook! All of these things are fantastic new products that make it easier for people to work, play and stay connected while they are on the move.

PC vendors have really been caught with their trousers down by the success of the Eee PC in particular. Because it's been marketed to some extent as an educational tool, a lot of mainstream computer vendors utterly ignored it, while Toys'R Us have been selling it.

I'm not surprised that the Eee PC is Asus's most successful product ever - it completely rewrites the personal computing paradigm. It may very well turn out to be even more revolutionary than the Apple iPod.

Meanwhile, laptops in general have overtaken desktops in sales, WiFi is available in more and more places (sometimes at a cost, sometimes free) and web-based apps are available for more and more purposes, so it's now possible to work, surf the Internet or read e-mail from more and more places. And mobile phones are beginning to become useful for web browsing - just the other day I was out for a few drinks with some work colleagues, and using Opera Mobile on my Motorola RAZR, I was able to update my status on Twitter. And the iPhone is just the first in a whole new series of phones that will offer a browsing experience nearly equal to that on the desktop.

I'm beginning to think that personal computing is at the beginning of a series of radical changes which will shake the industry to its core. The term personal computing, at least for me, has always been something of a misnomer. It doesn't move with you, it stays on the desktop. Desktop computing would be a better phrase than personal computing. Laptops have existed for many years, but for a long time they did little to change this. On your laptop, you could work on the go, but you were often cut off from the Internet, and would have to wait till you got back to somewhere you could connect again before you could do certain things.

But now that is changing. More and more things can be done in the cloud, on any computer connected to the Internet. This has the advantages that they can be accessed from anywhere, even if you're at your work computer or round a friend's house. I myself store many documents and all my bookmarks using online services, and I use web mail. This way I can access them from either of my two laptops, the computer I use at work or anywhere else. It also reduces the need for processing power, as the application runs on the web server and all your computer has to do is display the output in a web browser, in effect becoming a thin client. Projects like the GNOME Online Desktop are good examples of this (GNOME Online Desktop may actually tempt me away from KDE, it's that good!).

Wi-Fi is also becoming more prevalent. I work in Norwich, and there is a free municipal Wi-Fi network covering much of the city centre, as well as free Wi-Fi in many cafes and bars. In the longer term, I would expect WiMAX to eventually take over from Wi-Fi, since this allows for much greater coverage using a single access point, and indeed the next-generation Eee PC will include WiMAX technology. It's not unreasonable to expect to see wireless Internet access on trains (it's already possible to get it on buses).

All this points towards a future where computing is much more personal than it has been in the past. In a few years time, we can anticipate a future where most of us have small, easily portable computers that we can slip into a briefcase, but are quite capable of surfing the Web, reading our e-mail, reading feeds and working from virtually anywhere. We'll be able to do everything we do from a desktop (except play processor-intensive games) on the go.

And what OS benefits from this the most? Linux, of course. It's lightweight, fast, supports more hardware than any other OS, and is already used on a huge variety of different devices. I can't deny that Microsoft are making moves to create versions of Windows that will work on subnotebooks like the Eee PC, but Linux is already there, is cheaper and is better suited to the task. In all likelihood Microsoft will now never be able to catch up with Linux in this area of the market. The Eee PC, Cloudbook and Noahpad all run Linux by default, as did Palm's ill fated Foleo, demonstrating that Linux is an obvious choice for such devices.

I've said in previous posts that I believe that the entire concept of the Year of the Linux Desktop is flawed. The truth is, something that could potentially be a lot bigger than that has now begun. The era of truly portable computing is just beginning, and Linux can only benefit from this.

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