Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My affair with small computers

Around this time last year I participated in the give one get one program of the OLPC foundation. It took a long time to get the laptop but when I received it, I was very impressed. I had attended the EG 2007 conference and had seen both Negroponte and the designer of the device whose name currently escapes me talk about the device and it inspired me to get involved/donate.

The industrial design is/was unlike anything I had seen. The operating system was intriguing. The computing power was disappointing. My now six year old son, who was the recipient in my house, while excited that he had his own technology, didn’t like the delays and waiting and opted instead for the use of our Mac Mini and an old moster sized laptop I designated as his. I on the other hand was digging the form factor and ruggedness of the device. I wondered whether or not the OS was the limiting factor and embarked on a process of trying to install a variety of linux variants on the machine. I had conculded that a device that small would be the ideal vehicle for trips to places like New York where most of my time is spent demoing phones and presenting powerpoints. If I could travel with a pocket full of phones and a computer the size of a book, my life would be very easy. Ultimately the various Flash and USB booting options didn’t work out with my level of technical expertise.

Around the time that I was trying to find ways to USB or Flash drive boot my OLPC, a couple of guys in my office showed up with some small devices. One of the guys on our QA team had his own MSI device running Windows in the office. Another engineer had an ASUS running Xandros I believe. Next door at Michael Robertson’s Linspire company they were doing a number of deals with ASUS around the distribution of their Click and Run Software distribution platform. While I was focused on a travel related convenience use case, I saw other around me looking at a way to use a new device/platform that was portable, personal, and most important cheap. Cheap was both key and compellling. The devices are largely in the $300 - $500 range which makes most of the either cheaper or on par with the half a dozen cell phones I carry.
For my birthday this year, my only desire was to buy one of these low cost lightweight netbooks. While my primary computing platform today is a Mac, I wanted a Linux based netbook and was leaning towards either the ASUS or the Dell entrant which launched with a Microsoft XP version at a higher price point than I wanted. One day prior to a trip to Seattle I went and sourced the cheapest netbook available at the local Fry’s.

While Fry’s has a number of options, the one that was $350 at the time was the Acer Aspire One running Windows XP. I am certainly not a Windows hater as I have used Windows most of the time I have been using computers, which is many years now. In the last two years I have moved to a Mac as I can run Windows, Linux and Mac OS and I have the widest selection of software choices as a result. I selected a nice blue version and have to say that I was amazed out how small, lightweight and powerful the device is. I still was hoping to have a Linux device as I support the libertarian implications of Linux, but have to say that those concerns/ideals have been outweighed by the benefits I have experienced with this device and the manner in which I am using it.

There are a number of issues associated with using a “satellite” computer and a normal beefy laptop. Synchronization of files, management of email and streamlining work are all something worth a separate post. For now I think the important thing to convey is that computing is getting really cheap. And portable. And the performance at this end of the spectrum is certainly nothing to laugh about. There are also drawbacks. The mouse on this device has a learning curve. I also couldn’t use this for a fulltime computer given the overall keyboard size. On the other hand, I wrote this post on my netbook and nothing can beat how easy it is to use on an airplane and the entire discussion that crops up when I pull it out in a meeting to give a presentation. I am not one to predict the future but I do think that some of the prognostications around everyone carrying a device around like this in the not to distant future is certainly something that is not all that far fetched. Bottom line for me, I LOVE IT!