27 August 2008

Netbooks out in full force

For this holiday season, most of the major computer manufacturers will have some sort of netbook offering. This really represents a sea change in the way computers are made and marketed, and I think we have the OLPC's precedent to thank for it.

Technology is constantly getting cheaper, but manufacturers have always offset the savings by adding more features. As recently as 2005, it would have been folly to think that the manufacturers would abandon this (very profitable) collusion. The idea that a small computer could be less expensive instead of more expensive had not even entered the public mind. Yes, you could buy a "subnotebook" but it would have cost you about $2500.

OLPC's plans really shook things up. They said they wanted to bring computers to the developing world, a market which the industry was doing little for at the time. You could tell that everyone wanted a piece of the action. And that was why there was such vitriol in OLPC's interactions with Intel and Microsoft. But more significantly, I think, people started to understand that an inexpensive computer was something you would have to engineer, instead of just being something you picked up out of the trash and repurposed. That was the spark for the XO-1 and the Eee PC. Competition being as awesome as it is, now everyone wants a piece of the netbook pie.

Intel and Microsoft are somewhat apprehensive about this, and quite understandably.

Microsoft has grudgingly continued to ship Windows XP: for most of these computers, for reasons of both cost and performance, it's either Windows XP or GNU/Linux. In order to keep from cannibalizing sales of (the more expensive) Windows Vista, Microsoft enforces a bunch of crazy restrictions about the maximum specifications of computers that they'll sell you Windows XP for at the lowest prices. I don't see this ad-hoc business ending well. And if GNU/Linux gets a lot of mainstream credibility by making inroads on netbooks, that credibility will spread to the desktop (desktops and full-size notebooks), and people will think carefully when they have to decide whether to plop down another $50 or whatnot to get Windows.

Intel has already launched a lower-margin line of chips (Atom) to meet netbook demands. But, its continued relevance is far from certain. Many netbooks are designed to run GNU/Linux because Windows is either cost-prohibitive, or too slow, or vendors want to differentiate with their software. When the OS consists almost entirely of free software which the vendor can recompile at the drop of a hat, it can be made to run pretty much identically on another architecture. Just contrast that to Windows, where people have been stalling on moving from x86 to x86-64 for ages now. A bunch of non-x86 phones and handhelds already run Firefox, GTK apps, the whole shebang. How long is it before we see ARM processor-based netbooks?

05 August 2008

Unfortunate advertising campaigns

From The Times Online:

In the wake of the [bus decapitation and cannibalism] attack, Greyhound has scrapped a billboard ad campaign that extolled the relaxing upside of bus travel which had the unfortunate punch line stating: "There's a reason you've never heard of 'bus rage'".

04 August 2008

Living out a childhood fantasy

The Wall Street Journal reports on Dig This, a so-called "heavy equipment playground". It's a 10-acre lot with an excavator, a bulldozer, and other machinery that you can pay to play with.

Hoisting, digging and razing costs $280 to $650, depending on the machine and the number of hours spent aboard. Even at those prices, Mr. Mumm doesn't expect to turn a profit for at least another year — he's had about 90 paying customers so far. But he feels confident that he's tapped into an underserved corner of the American psyche.

His customers have ranged from corporate chief executives to an 84-year-old woman. Many find it tough to say why it's such a thrill to play with rocks. "I'm giggly when you ask about it," says Hank Edwards, a recent customer.

Their instructors will train you to use the equipment and give you hints via a two-way radio. And the following sounds like an awesome idea:

He's even dreaming about creating a save-your-marriage course, with a licensed counselor coaching couples through exercises that require good communication.