Sunday, December 12, 2004

Yale's Idea Of Building A Better PC

Saw this link to an opinion piece on IBM's decision to sell off its PC business and how to go about making a better PC. Being a network engineer and all-round computer geek myself, I was immediately interested and clicked on the link over at Power Line to read it.

Suffice it say, I'm underwhelmed.

Professor David Gelernter is professor of computer science at Yale and senior fellow at Scientific Computing Associates in New Haven, by which credentials I assumed he would have superior insights into PC architecture, design, and usage. His piece begins with a lament that the decision by IBM to sell off its PC division reflects a conclusion on the part of IBM that PC's are a mature technology (read that: no where to go) that have become a commodity item "like toothpicks or telephones..." True enough, I think, but he believes that rather than sell the unit off, IBM needed to innovate in order to sell their PC's at the higher prices they needed. That's a fair perspective. So what's his idea for innovation?

::::::::Like many people, I have several PCs in my life - and I constantly need to ask such ridiculous questions as, "Where did I leave the latest version of that file? By what clumsy method should I move it from where it is to where it's needed?" Such questions are like asking "Where did I leave the starter crank for my Huppmobile?" If you have to ask, your (formerly) hot-shot machine is ready for the folk-art museum.

IBM might have done well selling PCs with built-in "transparent information sharing." As soon as you connected such a machine to the Internet, all your electronic documents would immediately be available--no matter where you created or last worked on them. If all your computers had transparent information-sharing, you could start composing an e-mail at work, touch it up during your drive home (using a--theoretical--in-car, audio-interface IBM PC) and finish it up on a laptop in your backyard. Lots of businesses and people would have shelled out for such PCs.

Many old and decrepit PCs would be replaced tomorrow if bringing new PCs up to speed weren't such a colossal nuisance. IBM PCs with transparent information-sharing would have made that problem disappear. Connect a new machine to the Internet and all your electronic information would have materialized automatically.

I got to right there and, literally sitting at my own PC with my mouth hanging open, had to think, "Is this guy insane or just an idiot?" With all the incredibly well documented hacking and viral attacks going on out there on the Internet, this guy's idea for making a better PC is to have the thing fling open the doors on all your files and make everything available the second it connects to the Net? Earth to Professor Gelernter: it's been done. It was called "sharing" on the Windows O/S and it was the problem, not the promise. When always-on broadband connections started up, the people who first got them (who weren't also network engineers or techno-weenies) got their collective butts handed to them. Hackers, crackers, script-kiddies, and just the occasional sightseer went scanning for open PC's and when they found them, they exploited them. It was a disaster, not a neato feature. And the scans are going on right now, as we speak. Would you like to see what this looks like? One of my clients has an office in the hinterlands of Ohio. They don't run any services out of there, meaning there's no web pages to browse, no file servers to pull data from, or anything else that would cause people to even notice them, let alone try to make a connection. Here's a log for the last 8 days:

.Dec 4 08:46:03: list 10 denied
.Dec 4 10:23:09: list 10 denied
.Dec 4 13:49:39: list 10 denied
.Dec 4 22:43:24: list 10 denied
.Dec 5 12:57:37: list 10 denied
.Dec 5 14:53:04: list 10 denied
.Dec 5 19:59:37: list 10 denied
.Dec 5 20:04:36: list 10 denied
.Dec 6 07:05:10: list 10 denied
.Dec 6 18:34:33: list 10 denied
.Dec 6 21:43:04: list 10 denied
.Dec 7 00:52:35: list 10 denied
.Dec 8 06:27:40: list 10 denied
.Dec 8 07:06:27: list 10 denied
.Dec 8 07:46:50: list 10 denied
.Dec 8 08:11:51: list 10 denied
.Dec 8 09:46:33: list 10 denied
.Dec 8 09:51:55: list 10 denied
.Dec 9 07:03:03: list 10 denied
.Dec 10 15:47:05: list 10 denied
.Dec 10 17:53:00: list 10 denied
.Dec 11 02:52:28: list 10 denied
.Dec 11 05:22:41: list 10 denied
.Dec 11 07:15:03: list 10 denied
.Dec 11 09:05:45: list 10 denied
.Dec 12 05:20:00: list 10 denied

What you're seeing is an attempt by someone to connect to my client's systems - that's what a scan is - and failing. And this is just 1 site that no one should be trying to connect with in any case. If you're running a log on your broadband connection, I'm betting you'd be seeing much the same. This is the environment the good professor is suggesting you open your checkbook, tax returns, and legal documentation up into.

He talks about e-mail and visual displays:

::::::::Many computer users are overwhelmed by e-mail. Whenever you start work on a computer, you ought to find a one-page e-mail summary ready and waiting. It would tell you at a glance (even if you haven't touched a computer in weeks) which new e-mails look important, which look like junk, and which have been acknowledged but not yet answered. (To acknowledge an e-mail is to send a one-line "I got it" message.) IBM might have offered a PC with "e-mail summary" built-in, along with a new key--press it and you cause the current message to be acknowledged; the computer updates its reminder list accordingly. Warning: This is not an e-mail cure. But it would help manage the pain.

There are dozens more possibilities. Why should anyone waste time throwing out e-mail (or any electronic document) when data storage is dirt cheap? Why are we wedded to a windows-menus-mouse interface that is flat, as if it were stuck to the back of the screen, when computers are easily powerful enough to turn the screen into a viewport that lets us "peer through it" into an imaginary 3-D landscape? (Information can be more clearly and effectively arranged in a 3-D space than on a restricted flat surface.) Large-screen and projection technology is cheaper all the time; why aren't large-screen computers (and living-room computers) a growing (high profit!) segment of the industry? Why doesn't every computer I use show me the exact same desktop, with the same layout of the same icons?--or (at any rate) the same picture, no matter what interface I use? I could go on.

It sounds like the professor has less of a problem with the PC as a device and more with the operating system software because virtually all of his gripes here are dealing with a function the PC performs, not some kind of gizmo it doesn't have. As to his e-mail issues, I have to say that my Mozilla Thunderbird already offers e-mail sorting and junk-mail identification. The software has to learn what junk looks like, however, and I get the impression he thinks he shouldn't have to go through that process. The one new feature he discusses - the new "acknowledge" feature - already exists. It's called a receipt. Of course, the sender has to ask for it when the message is sent, but what's he really asking for here? Instead of sending an e-mail and getting a reply with the information you requested, he suggests you'd rather get two e-mails and only 1 will contain the requested info. Yeah, that's just what I need - more e-mail in my inbox.

Follow that thought up with that crack about why anyone would throw out e-mail when storage is so cheap. Spoken like a true member of academia who need only make a call to the University IT department to magically have larger hard drives installed. Pardon me, professor, but the rest of us have to pay for our hardware ourselves. Is he really suggesting that I not bother to clean out the several dozen spams and Nigerian 419 fraud messages I get a week? Adding hardware devices to a PC isn't the magical tap-tap of a keypad and away we go! event implied.

I've heard more insightful commentary on the state of personal computing from my father-in-law who's a 64 years old, never-went-to-college, retired forge operator than what I read here. Disappointing, to say the least. Hope he's better in class.