The Other Shoe

Before the Internet, networks were private affairs. You bought them from Novell or Microsoft or IBM. More accurately, you bought a set of network services (as Craig Burton points out in "Migrating to Antartica," starting on Page X). These were services you could only get from those companies: file and print from Novell and Microsoft, messaging from Lotus and so on. And, of course, they wouldn't cooperate with those same services from other companies.

The Internet took several network services and put their protocols (HTTP for Web, SMTP for messaging, FTP for file transport, among others) in the public domain, running on top of the equally public network protocols of TCP/IP. This gave us a high degree of interoperability for the first time. Yet it didn't put Novell and Microsoft out of business (there are still many services the Internet does not perform at all, or performs incompletely — and the Old Guys still perform very well), but it gave their businesses a whole new context: a public one. In a blink their whole world changed, along with everybody else's.

And it's still changing. When the Internet finishes settling in, just about everything with a reason to communicate will depend on it, from embedded controllers to Palm Pilots to the whole damn phone system.

But perhaps the Internet was just the sound of one shoe dropping. And the other shoe is Linux.

Linux seems to have the same calling: something free for everybody (or, as financial wizard Eric Hughes puts it, "The point really is free beer," starting on page __. And the Internet — which looks like one great big Unix system anyway — seems like natural companion for Linux. Already the vast majority of the Web's pages are served by Apache, running mostly on Linux systems. Are Web services an enterprise beachead for Linux? Or are they just a vertical application with little leverage?

How hard is it to imagine Linux kernels as the most basic building blocks of Networked life? For Linux geeks, it goes without saying. For the rest of us it's a helluva stretch (especially when Linux still looks like a Swiss watch delivered in 400 separate parts). But so was imagining a networked world that wasn't a medieval mess of warring states dominated by the Empire of Microsoft, the Dutchy of Novell and the Blue Kingdom of IBM.

We're still less than halfway through the shift from personal to social computing. Only a minority of households have PCs, and only a minority of those are connected to the Net. According to design critic and user advocate Don Norman, there are two basic reasons why: 1) computers are too complicated for most people, and 2) the Net still lacks a plug & run infrastructure. He lays out a short-form prognosis the title of his latest book, The Invisible Computer : Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution.

People are social. Telephony is equally social, because it lets people converse over simple appliances (incomprehensible cell phones and PBXes notwithstanding). Computing is social too; but only for a minority. There is still no computing appliance that's as social as a telephone. Is Linux what will get us there?

I suggest that the first social computing appliance — let's call it the first SC — will cost less than $400, look friendlier than an iMac, get on the Internet with the ease of a phone call, and produce Microsoft Office compatible files for those who want to use simple productivity applications.

Well, you can prototype that appliance right now by slapping just about anybody's Linux, anybody's desktop and anybody's office suite onto a commodity PC that's too slow for Windows 98. You can put that setup in front of a Windows newbie and they'll probaly know how to use it. On the server side, the appliances are already here. The Cobalt Qube 2 is a blue cube the size of a small boom box speaker that anybody with an IP address can put on the Web in minutes and control easily over a browser. It runs Apache on Linux, but Cobalt doesn't mention that fact anywhere but on its data sheets. Why? Because it's an appliance. What's in it matters no more than what makes heat in a steam iron. All that matters is that it works.

Right now the companies moving in the appliance direction are what Eric Hughes calls "fast followers." Microsoft was a fast follower of Apple, which is why Windows is a MacOS knockoff. Now Corel, KDE, Star Division and Gnome are fast followers of Microsoft, which is why their goods are not only effective clones, but in some cases (most notably Corel's) significantly improve on what they copy. But are they headed in the right direction?

Not if they don't follow the user even more obsessively than they follow Microsoft. Don Norman says, "The successful family of information appliances will be built around the people who use them and the tasks to be performed. Products in the world of information technology have suffered far too long under the existing technology-cenbtered designs... Today it is the individual who must conform to the needs of technology. It is time to make technology conform to the needs of people."

Right now Linux requires far more compliance than Windows or Macintosh. Can that change? Only if some folks in the Linux community start to remember "the rest of us" that Apple abandoned fifteen years ago. If they do, the other shoe is sure to drop. Big time.