Small, but perfectly formed....
Sorry for the long silence, I've been in a training course, which has another week to run. Back to normal (such as that ever is) in about 10 days, assuming I pass the exam.
A couple of weeks back I picked up an Asus Eee laptop on the way home from work. If you haven't seen this nice little gadget yet, I urge you to check it out at your first opportunity. I've bought the 4G model, which has a 7 inch (diagonal measurement) screen, 512MB of RAM and a 4GB solid state hard drive. Plus 3 USB ports, and SD card slot, modem port, ethernet port, built in wireless networking, a webcam and built in speakers. All of that, and it weighs 920 grams. The power supply is quite small, like the plug on a phone charger (I was expecting a big power brick, to compensate for the small form factor of the machine, so I was pleasantly surprised). The machine comes with a black nylon slip case, and I got a thin lens cleaning cloth from my optometrist, to use as a screen protector when the machine is closed. I've bought a Pacsafe Metrosafe 200 bag, which I can use when I only want to carry the Eee: it will fit in the same bag as my MacBook Pro, but it tends to rattle around if it's in there on it own. And my whole purpose for buying such a small machine was to minimize the amount of stuff that I carry around with me.
The Eee ships with Xandros, a fork of the Debian linux distro, and out of the box is configured in "Easy Mode", which presents a set of brightly coloured icons for basic tasks. This is probably good if the machine is going to be handed to an end user, but not much use for anyone technically literate, who wants to add more software or get at a command line, so the first thing to do is to reconfigure the machine into "Advanced Mode". The instructions are on the eeeuser wiki and the result is a full desktop (KDE).
I plugged in my Huawei E220 modem, and got it working in seconds (much easier than it was on my Mac!). I've installed the Opera web browser - Firefox comes pre-installed, but I've been meaning to try Opera seriously, and it's supposed to be a better choice for small screens.
But left in "Easy Mode", this computer would be perfectly usable by anyone with basic keyboard skills and the ability to drive a browser. It's Linux, without the hard parts. Linux for your grandmother. And this appears to be worrying some people, such as Mike Abary from Sony, who told cNet "If (the Eee PC from) Asus starts to do well, we are all in trouble. That's just a race to the bottom". I think he's right to be worried: you can load Windows XP onto an Eee (this seems a daft idea to me, but it can be done), but Microsoft seems hell-bent on terminating XP on June 30th, in the face gross customer dissatisfaction with Vista, a petition for the continued availability of XP and against the advice of the analysts. The game is changing as they watch, and Microsoft isn't ready for it.
All big companies tend to get blinded by their own success, and they forget that the purpose of their marketing department is to convince the consumers, not to act as some sort of reality distortion field for their management. Someone from Microsoft really should review the history of Novell, which in about 1994-95 was the undisputed king of the hill, with a huge install base. Novell fell from power effectively in a matter of months, because their management (among many other stupid mistakes) assumed that a huge install base made them invincible. I was still working in technical support at the time: when I joined that team, there were about 30 people on the tech support team, 4 of whom could support Unix, while everyone did Netware support. I can remember being told by one of the Netware engineers that there was no point in working with Unix, because it was doomed: Netware was too big to be beaten. Within a year, Netware was no longer cool, and I was teaching Unix skills to my colleagues. Nothing, I repeat nothing, is forever in IT. When the life expectancy of a mobile phone is under a year (how many in your bottom drawer), when desktop machines are written off after about 3 years (less, if you're a gamer), change can come very quickly.
As more apps become available over the web, the need to have a big powerful machine on the desk diminishes. Have you seen these?
SlideRocket presentation software
Aviary image editing
GetDropBox storage and synchronization
Clarizen project management
and of course Google apps, Google docs, etc, etc. OK, the idea of trusting someone I've never met with my data, with no SLA's and no notion of what their security posture might be is worrying. But these things will mature: my employer sells customers access to a big shared HDS SAN to store their data, and many commercial vendors have some sort of "by the gigabyte" storage offering, run on who-knows-what hardware. SLAs and commercial arrangements are in place, and everyone is happy.
As applications move onto the web, and virtualization drags traditional desktops back into the data centre, the age of the "thin client" may well be upon us - Wyse, Sun, HP, IBM and many others all have offerings in that space, and they are well received at corporate level, by CIOs and CEOs tired of constant hardware upgrade costs and software licensing agreements with a price tag the size of the national debt of a small country. More and more gamers are moving to dedicated consoles, instead of PCs, and the demands of computer games have driven the direction of the PC hardware industry for many years. If you no longer run games on your PC, what do you still use it for, and how much hardware do you really need to complete those tasks? If you can do everything you want to using a web browser and services delivered over the Internet, you probably don't need much at all. Perhaps just enough to fit in your handbag?
I think "the race to the bottom" has already started.