``It's not the box, it's what you do with it, stupid.''
These words have resided with me ever since I first heard them
as a sales assistant at 15 while working part-time at a local
computer store. The customer was annoyed at my very naive notion
that the computer under discussion, an early Commodore Amiga,
should be his preferred choice because of its technical superiority
-- 4096 colors, stereo sound, and swift 7.14MHz 68000
He eventually bought a boring, early model IBM compatible with a
green screen that cost twice as much because it had Lotus 1-2-3 and
Wordstar, the dominant spreadsheet and word processor of the day.
My error was I had fundamentally misunderstood his purpose -- I
thought he wanted a computer. Instead, he wanted to solve a
problem. He wanted to run his financial accounting business and
correspond with associates mostly. Compatibility with his office
systems was also a consideration. The computer was the means, not
Today, applications can be enabled either through traditional
shrinkwrap software, downloaded from the Net and then run, executed
remotely over the Web or using a combination of these methods. Tax
returns, for instance, can be provided through a Web page instead
of a CD-ROM. Most literally, an application is the act of applying
these methods, it is not the method itself.
With this change in focus on delivery, new business
opportunities and threats emerge. You can grant free access to a
Web-based tax form complete with built-in calculators, but to
submit that form to the Government you pay $29.95. Most users won't
care that the service runs on a technically superior server or that
their PC is the latest Intel Pentium III or PowerPC G4 -- they just
don't want to go to jail.
The biggest criticism of the Linux development community is it
doesn't care enough for the end-user -- all the focus is on
tweaking the Kernel or server uses. Although this criticism isn't
entirely fair, this widely held belief contains a lesson.
Usability is under the microscope and is making significant
headway thanks to the efforts of GNOME and KDE developers. The
recently announced tweaking database in reponse to the
controversial Mindcraft benchmarking is another example, and
perhaps a pointer for other initiatives.
But more needs to be done to address other user issues, and
leverage Linux's specific strengths by providing software and
DESIGNING FOR NEW APPLICATIONS
As technologies converge and devices diverge into new form
factors, arguably the only ``killer app'' is a universal way to
access information, currently usually a Web browser. Everyone's
needs are different, so tools will be applied differently. I may
want to access a tax return form, another may want to play a game,
someone else may want to check a library catalog, send e-mail or
listen to music. One user's killer app may be a mystery to another,
and even a user's applications will vary over time as their needs
alter. It may be essential for me to file this report, but after
that I may want to relax and enjoy some entertainment.
Linux's most obvious strength is that it isn't owned by anyone.
It doesn't cost anything to get the Kernel and GNU support
software, it poses no threat to anyone because there are no
business alliance concerns, code is svelte, is infinitely scalable
and customisable. It fits many form factors.
It belongs on top of a television.
In the last three years, Microsoft has pushed with a vengeance
into the worldwide Pay-TV industry. It wants every set-top box to
run a version of WindowsCE, and the back-ends to all be Microsoft
server architecture. Last week it was reported in the Wall Street
Journal that the Seattle company is willing to dip into its balance
sheet for a war chest of $US5 billion to encourage AT&T to use
AT&T and other cable operators have been understandably
skittish about these sorts of approaches. The Pay-TV industry does
not want to be in the same position of serfdom that it has seen in
the IT industry.
Could Linux be the ideal solution?
It provides a mature, robust, scalable and licence-free
architecture that can not only run a client, but the server as
well. There are plenty of skilled and talented developers who are
good-to-go with their expertise. And any plan to position Linux as
an end-to-end proposition could be fulfilled in record time.
But best of all, because no-one owns Linux, it is no threat to
the media titans. And it is how they apply the same base
technology, not the technology itself, that will dictate success
Maybe this is the reason for Sony's rumored embrace of the
technology for its next generation PlayStation? I know if I was
heading a digital television convergence development effort in a
big media company, Linux is a platform technology I would
More immediately, perhaps, there are other specific applications
that are required. One is online gaming.
Interactive entertainment developer, Sierra Studios, plans to
release an online collaborative environment based on JRR Tolkien's
Lord of the Rings by March next year. Middle Earth will enable as
many as 10,000 players at a time to take up residence in the
mythical land. Users will be able to buy and sell property, own
pets, join families, chat to each other via an IRC-like system and
engage in the minutiae of everyday living.
But the scope of the project means the developers operating
under a traditional closed proprietary model will not deploy for
any client system other than Microsoft Windows.
``This decision is not based on any partisan opinion of the
merits of a particular operating system, platform or company. It is
simply a practical necessity; creating Middle-Earth for one
platform is a Herculean task in itself,'' the Middle-Earth FAQ
``Cross-platform development of the constantly evolving client
software would complicate this task to the extent of jeopardizing
As I read the company's business plan from what little
information is available, Middle Earth is better suited to a
service than a traditional shrink-wrap software model. It allows
for geographic-specific hosting and franchising opportunities --
servers should be as close to users as the network allows.
The value of a network, in this case an online gaming community,
increases with each node or person. Consider the growth of the
telephone system, transportation networks, and Internet; they took
a long time to develop leading to high tariffs, which discouraged
users and sapped their innate value. As costs fell, more people
were sucked into the mix until critical mass was reached and the
industry exploded. A telephone isn't much good if you have no-one
else to talk to; an e-mail bounces if there is no recipient and a
road is no good if it doesn't go anywhere.
Selling the software is a barrier to adoption, so not allowing
for profit maximisation from service opportunities. Instead, a
better approach is to give away the binary executable AOL-style,
bundle it on magazine covers, mass-mail it to anyone who wants it,
and offer it for download. The priority should be to get as many
people online as quick as possible with as few tethers as
Additionally, giving away the source code under an appropriate
licence reduces development costs, allows for new ideas to be
rapidly implemented, and most importantly gives it the reach of a
growing number of connected individuals running non-Microsoft
systems. Combine it with a set-top box like the one mentioned
earlier and the only question is how do you spend the millions you
make from an initial public offering?
Sierra says: ``Once Middle-earth has launched and the client is
stable a port becomes more practical, particularly if a credible
developer were to make an approach.''
What more credible group than that which demands open peer
review of the code? Here is an opportunity for the community to
demonstrate its skills, ensure it has access to what looks like a
great game, and for some people to make potentially a lot of
Better yet, why not borrow the concept and develop similar
environments for other compelling mythical universes under licence?
Fancy becoming a stormtrooper patrolling the arid wastes of
Tatooine? Maybe you would prefer to be a Drazi trader on the Narn
Homeworld in the Babylon-5 universe? Or would you like to drop by
Anne McCaffrey's Pern, or even live through the eons in Asimov's
Another application I would like to see are those annoying
Wizards. It's not that I want to use them -- I find Wizards and
assistants get in my way most times -- but many users find them
reassuring. An attempt to knock the HOW-TOs into assistant form
would counter a lot of concerns about Linux's end-user appeal.
These could even be deployed entirely remotely, leveraging ISPs use
of Linux or a BSD onto the user's client.
Finally, Linux needs Microsoft Office.
Regardless of how many people feel about Microsoft products, the
pragmatist understands the overwhelming majority of enterprises and
users have standardised on Microsoft software for their word
processing and other general office needs. This is a situation,
borne of irrational religion and ideology in many cases, that is
not likely to reverse any time soon. To make Linux a more
attractive proposition for the mainstream, it needs this
Bill Gates has shown he is not inept when it comes to
identifying new opportunities. That he has chosen to completely
ignore the fastest growing niche market, Linux, with more than 20
million users speaks volumes.
Linux is a great innovation platform and allows natural
synergies between nodes across a network. It should be used as a
tool to reach into the lives of people who otherwise don't, and
shouldn't have to care.
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