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Re: Linux is great, but is it cool?

From: Rex Ballard
Subject: Re: Linux is great, but is it cool?
Date: Wed, 16 Jan 2008 00:45:56 -0800 (PST)
User-agent: G2/1.0

On Jan 15, 12:15 pm, wrote:
> One thing that drew me to computers from the start
> was going to computer clubs and seeing the cool hacks
> that people had managed to get working using their
> computers. For instance, I once saw a VIC-20 with
> a "real" 80x25 video card, for instance, and a guy
> who created his own OS.

I was a ham radio operator before Microcomputers.  About a year before
the Altair was published, there were projects in magazines like QST
and 73 that had schematics and instructions for Slow Scan television
displays, and CRT alphanumeric displays for RTTY.  Early Altair users
often used ham radio RTTY terminals for the keyboard, printer, and
paper tape punch.  The readers were often done using simpler
technologies which were easier to program into the computer using the
switches and LEDs on the front panel.

These computers weren't "Cool", but those who had been involved in
technology saw the possibility of combining computers and radio (Ham
or CB or ??), to create something extraordinary.  A popular
application for those early computers was a program that could "read"
morse code, and convert it to RTTY output.

I remember seeing the first Apples.  These were not Apple II machines,
they were the ones with the wooden sides and formica covers.  The
owner of a ham radio/computer store had purchased a machine Jobs had
shown at that early computer fair.

There were a lot of really "Cool" computers that were ahead of their
time as well.  Ohio Scientific had computers that had high resolution
displays, complex multitasking operating systems, and yet they did not
develop strong educational and business applications.

The Cromemco Z2 had UNIX and high resolution graphics cards, but in
1979, it was too advanced to be cost-effective.

The Commodore PET and TRS-80 weren't as "Cool" as the 6800 machines
that ran OS/9 (a UNIX variant written for the 6809 and later the 68000
processors), but the cost of the machines was too high compared to the
little 4k computers with display and keyboard.  The Apple II could be
plugged into an RF Modulator so that you could use a conventional
television.  Even though it was almost $1500, compared to the Atari
800 at $500, this compatibility with televisions made it very popular
as a "Home" computer since you didn't have to buy a special monitor.

The Atari 800 was "Cool", but it was mostly for games.

The Atari 400 was "Cool" - great for kids, since you didn't have to
worry about spilling drinks and food on it, but it wasn't going to be
popular as a business machine.

The Coleco Adam was "cool" because it had the console, storage,
display, and printer all in one package for a low and reasonable
price.  Unfortunately, it wasn't well implemented, and the defects
killed it.

The Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were "Way Cool", with great high
resolution graphics, great sound, and great multitasking operating
systems.  Unfortunately, they got hung up in FCC RFI certification,
and missed their market window.   By the time they were approved, IBM
Compatibles were offering high resolution and more graphical

> As time went by, clubs were less important and the
> Internet took over as a place to swap ideas and
> clever software hacks.

I started using the Internet (usenet) in 1983.  If you didn't have
terminal access to a UNIX computer, you didn't have access, and even
if you did, it was through dial-up connections.

In 1984, the UNIX administrators of usenet turned to the DOD who gave
the universities and colleges access to ArpaNet.  Many businesses
connected to these colleges using X.25 machines, and several ham radio
operators could access these colleges using AX.25 (the grandaddy of

> For instance, there is the typesetting system TeX, and a guy once put
> an entire TeX DVI viewer with fonts into just one small
> executable, enabling me to do real word processing
> on a 386 DX.

I remember writing documents using tbl and nroff or troff.  I could
preview the documents using a viewer, and print to one of the earliest
laser printers (Xerox).

The most impressive application in those early 1980s was Emacs.  It
was "Windows" for UNIX back when most UNIX users accessed the system
using 80 column by 25 line terminals.  Emacs let you split the screen
into horizonal and/or vertical windows, and you could put different
buffers into each of the windows.  Today, Emacs might seem primitive,
but in 1984, it was very exciting stuff.

The other big thing in those early days of the internet was the
proliferation of lots of programs in source code form.  UNIX had been
ported to lots of different platforms and as a result, administrators
wanted source to get it compiled for their platform.  One of the
interesting side effects was that UNIX wasn't plagued with the malware
problems that plagued MS-DOS users.  The MS-DOS viruses spread by
infesting the boot sector or hidden sectors, the viruses weren't
discovered because the software was being circulated in binary-only
form.  Over time, UNIX administrators wanted source so that they could
review it for security issues.  It's much harder to sneak a trojan
into source code that is reviewed by multiple administrators, than it
is to sneak it into code that is only published in binary form.

> Later, some guy named Linus did what others
> had also done -- the Mach group for example --
> he created a workstation-class kernel for the 486, however
> Linus did something wonderful.

> In every case of something amazing like this
> happening, I remarked that it was "cool", clever or novel.

So you using your personal feelings to guage whether something is
A survey of one is not terribly reliable.

> However I am not entirely sure that the hobbyist
> movement has continued to be cool, clever, and
> doing novel things.

The irony here is that Open Source is no longer a "Hobbyist" game.
Many of the contributors are system administrators, consultants, and
corporate users.  Ironically, Microsoft pretty much killed the market
for commercial software on PCs.  Many corporations don't want the
direct liability related to producing, testing, marketing, and
distributing software.  Selling software in a retail store can cost as
much as $10 million per application, just to get the first items onto
the shelves.  There is also maintenance, support, and liability if the
software doesn't work as expected.

Many corporations will review an employees creation, and if it's not
strategic, permit, or even encourage them, to contribute it to Open
Source.  For many corporations, this is a form of "pay back" for the
technology used on the Internet.  Most corporations are acutely aware
of how much they use Open Source Software, to the point of knowing
that they couldn't run their businesses and enjoy growth they now
enjoy, without that Open Source Software.

> The hobbyist was always
> the core of such successes, pushing the envelope
> for fun, not because he was paid to.

Often, he was paid for other duties.  In many cases, Open Source
Software is the byproduct of software written to deal with frequent
tasks and recurring problems or tasks.

> Today however
> Linux is rather business-minded, and money
> seems to be the primary concern of everyone.
> It's become mainly a bandwagon for business.

UNIX started in the colleges (AT&T wasn't allowed to sell it, so they
gave it away to colleges), but found it's way into the corporate world
as early as the 1980s.  IT professionals used UNIX for lots of
different tasks, and by the 1990s, UNIX was as much a part of the
corporate IT department as Mainframes and PCs.

> I am not convinced that truly cool things
> are happening any longer, because I am not
> seeing barriers being broken through at least
> in the area of software.

There are still lots of interesting things happening, but most of them
start at low profile.  Web 2.0, Web Services, SOA, SaaS, and peer-to-
peer collaboration have all been causing breakthroughs in the nature
of Information Technology.  It's not as glamourous as making movies in
iLife, or composing music, but it's very exciting to people who use
computers for business.

Thanks to OSS technology, it's now easy to set up infrastructutre to
create large teams located in many places, and collaborate effectively
using tools like VNC, GAIM, IRC, Jabber, and CVS or subversion.  Last
year, I cut my travel by 85%, and worked from home a great deal more,
almost 90% of the time.  With high speed internet, Linux servers and
workstations, and OSS collaboration tools, I can do a great deal from
home that used to require flying to a customer's location.

> Indeed, nor in hardware.

There are lots of things happening in hardware, and Linux and OSS are
driving the boat.  Linux has redefined computers, including how common
tasks are done.  Linux appliances have made it possible to create SAN
controllers and SAN storage that plugs into the ethernet.  The WiFi
hubs, powered by Linux support WiFi, Ethernet, WAN, and provide
firewalls, security, and some even support USB drives.

The OLPC and ASUS EEE have redefined the workstation.  Instead of
lugging the hard drive, DVD drive, and large high resolution display
everywhere, they created a machine with a smaller display, SD storage,
and 7 inch display, that is perfect for an airplane seat, a lecture
where you don't have a desk or table for typing, or a conference where
you just need to connect to other users via WiFi.  At the same time,
when you are at your desk or hotel room, you can plug in that USB
drive, you can plug in that 20 inch display, you can even plug in that
high speed DVD burner.

> Everyone involved in Linux seems to be using a hot-rod system that offers no 
> barriers.
> Where is the cool?

If you wanted Linux to be "hard", those days are fading fast.  If you
are looking for the next "cool", the best way to see where that is, is
to plug a Linux box into your network and start using it for work as
much as possible.

For others who don't want to give up Windows, give them cygwin.  This
will give them many of those UNIX tools, without the burdon of wiping
their hard drive.  You can also give them a VMWare "Appliance".  There
are so many things that Linux does better than Windows, but it takes
months to learn how it can impact your life, and how it can improve
your productivity.

Microsoft doesn't want you to find out.  They were so focused on 3D
graphics and transparent windows, that they missed the whole
revolution that LInux, OSS, and Java were creating in the workplace.

Rex Ballard

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