Thursday, February 7, 2013

The PC in a Post-PC World

The Post-PC era
The Post-PC era (Photo credit: henribergius)
Written by Guest Author: Robert Pogson  

Computers are wonderful.

They are the best/fastest/least expensive way to create, find, modify and present information of many kinds. The personal computer has issues, however. At first it was barely affordable by the common man but, thanks to Moore's Law, competition among OEMs and the Internet, PCs have become within range of all but the most poor people of the world.

Early on, Microsoft caught the wave and expanded the monopoly granted by IBM. Fortunately, the price Microsoft likes to receive per PC with Microsoft's OS has become so conspicuous that even retailers are seeing that GNU/Linux will sell better at least on the low end. The other huge issues for PCs are interoperability and malware. The ordinary user sees struggling with interoperability and malware as huge negatives. Since Microsoft was not motivated by anything but greed, the world has suffered trillions of dollars in costs of IT quite unnecessarily.

Along came ARM and Android/Linux, a distribution with real salesmen. The river of IT was now diverting past the dam Microsoft had built to tax IT. Now the whole world knows that IT can be done better and more cheaply than Wintel and retailers can even sell it. The problem that remains for the PC in the post-PC world is that the number of users of new personal computers is growing much faster than ever while the proportion of people that actually know how to use computers well is stagnating.

Sure, even my grandchild at age 3 can use Android/Linux and GNU/Linux but she is primitive in her concept of IT. To her everything is something you click to run and if it is not visible it does not exist. Sadly, even adults today who have used IT for years on personal computers are scarcely more sophisticated. They might seek to install an application they encounter on a website but they have little use for IT except to create image files with a camera, browse news, weather and shopping sites, play multimedia and keep track of acquaintances. The infinity of other uses is beyond them.

The legacy PC boxes and notebooks and the new PC boxes, smartphones, tablets and other gadgets are terribly underutilized even as their numbers proliferate.

GNU/Linux can fix that.

With GNU/Linux one does not need to buy licences to do many things. The time between concept and reality can be just a few minutes rather than weeks or months. The client PC can be a server or database, on the web or the LAN, or just serving itself. The possibilities are endless when M$'s profit-motive and EULA are bypassed. It starts with installing an OS. With that other OS one must first buy a licence to be legal.

With GNU/Linux one can install on just about anything that computes because the licence that comes with a $free download gives the freedom to install as many times as one likes with no accounting.

Indeed, GNU/Linux is Free Software that includes a licence permitting use, examination, modification and distribution with very few restrictions. A normal person can reasonably download and install GNU/Linux on an old PC and have the latest software running in just a few minutes instead of buying a new PC because the old one has "slowed down" (bogged down with unnecessary processes and malware, more likely...). It continues with artificial restraint on what you can do with your PC (quoting Microsoft's EULA for "8"):
  • "you can install one copy of the software on a personal computer and then you can use the software on that computer. The software is not licensed to be used as server software or for commercial hosting - so you may not make the software available for simultaneous use by multiple users over a network."
  • "You may allow up to 20 other devices to access the software installed on the licensed computer for the purpose of using file services, print services, Internet information services, and Internet connection sharing and telephony services on the licensed computer."
That artificial restriction by Microsoft may be fine for someone willing to limit use of the PC but it prevents the PC reaching a tiny fraction of its utility on a LAN in a school or other small/medium-sized organization.

Even a family wanting several members to use PCs simultaneously may be impacted. 

It is perfectly natural to have N PCs in a home. If a new one is purchased/built, why should the family members be limited to running only on the old PCs when the N PCs could be clients of the newer, faster, more powerful new machine? That would mean getting less value for hardware which has been bought, a silly concept. 

In a school lab, for instance, a single new PC can run all the processes for all the users better than 24 old PCs serving one user each. That's a real, tangible and feasible benefit of using GNU/Linux even in a home with two PCs, one old one and one new one. 

Further, one is not limited to LTSP to accomplish this magic. One can use X over SSH or several other protocols. An ordinary user can do this by installing LTSP via a distro such as Debian GNU/Linux or a distro designed to install LTSP from the beginning like Skolelinux. 

Once normal people are aware of a truly networked operating system like GNU/Linux, all barriers between client and server disappear. A client PC can run a local web-server so the user can access a local web application through a browser. This brings all the convenience of the web to the PC and the network lag disappears. The user can install web-applications like mail, blogging, databasery, groupware, ERP and CRM just as they do at work and all this for $0 and a bit of reading. If they decide to take things public or to share they can spread the joy on the LAN or the web or move applications to a real or virtual server anywhere in the world. 

A user of a modern PC with GNU/Linux can put all its huge resources to useful work rather than waiting for Microsoft or malware to clog things up. A user of an older PC scrounged from closets and basements can get years of good use out of them as reliable computers or even thin clients of newer machines. 

Real people can wring the last cent of value from their purchases of hardware. Once the concept of GNU/Linux and FLOSS sprouts in the consciousness of a consumer the PC is no longer approaching obsolescence but approaching freedom to be all it can be. 

The legacy PC box can be the new server on the LAN for buffering, processing and indexing all those images gathered by the smart thingies. It can be the massively redundant storage device, the database of everything that matters, the library, the video-streamer, the simulator and the planner. Of course, many organizations will choose to do those things in the cloud and reduce local responsibility but why should consumers not have the choice of privacy? 

FLOSS encourages users to learn the inner workings of software and hardware, a huge benefit to society. No doubt the world will adapt by producing different kinds of PC and in different numbers but with GNU/Linux all can be put to use to their maximum rather than being paid for repeatedly at the whim of salesmen. This could mean that in the future fewer PCs will need to be produced per anum but that is years away. It will take that long just to get everyone a smart thingy. In the meantime fewer legacy PCs will be purchased but more of them will have better performance through FLOSS. 

The key to getting GNU/Linux into the hands of hundreds of millions of users is retail shelf-space. 

There are places like Brazil where shelves are full of GNU/Linux but not my city, Winnipeg. Android/Linux and Chrome OS are there but not GNU/Linux yet. 

OEMs and retailers have seen the light because of the stagnation of "8" and the prominence of Android/Linux but so far they have not given much space to GNU/Linux. I expect that to happen in 2013. In 2012, that other OS peaked. It has nowhere to go but down and the decline will accelerate from now on as */Linux takes more share. It's the right way to do IT, using FLOSS, because FLOSS gives maximum value for investments in hardware and because FLOSS does not limit what ordinary people can do with IT. 

Robert Pogson, Technology Analyst
The legacy PC will evolve in hardware and in software and GNU/Linux will be a big part of the future. It's just too good an idea to die off completely but it will change. Apart from storage and RAM there's little need for a huge case and power supply unit these days. 

Expect tiny PCs with big operating systems and small prices.  

--Robert Pogson

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