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Linux: The end of the Personal Computer

Jul 22, 1999, 13:42 (15 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by João Miguel Neves)

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Contributed by Linux Today reader João Miguel Neves.

By now we all know how great the PCs are, how they made the mainframes and mini-computers industry giants fall (or at least rethink their business), how companies like Microsoft made it possible that enough people used Personal Computers so that today we have an "inexpensive" machine that's more powerful than supercomputers ten years ago.

This revolution, or evolution, has changed a lot of people's life. The simple fact of owning a computer passed from only the rich and technology aware people to a more wide market today. It's now something that is usual. It's normal for teachers to expect, and even ask for, computer processed reports. It's usual for a kid to have a console. What would be unthinkable before computers like the Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amiga and the PC is today's reality.

But is this the end? Have we finally got the ultimate concept in computing for people? Is there nothing more than the Personal Computer? The answer is, there's more to this than the Personal Computer. The Personal Computer has already begun the next steps of development. We now have the PDAs and Wearable Computing is coming closer to the market every month.

But, if this is the future of the Personal Computer, what happens to those boxes we have in our desks? Those monitors will all get replaced by glasses? Those supercharged boxes with the latest hardware will simply vanish? No. Remember the last time your computer was used by someone other than you? Your parent/brother/sister/children/friend/colleague for seeing something in the internet, to see a document, or simply to play a game?

Those boxes will be the same, the usage of them is what will change. They will turn themselves from Personal Computers to Family Computers, where the children can play, the students can write their reports and even thesis, the adults can write their documents and letters.

The Family Computer is the personal computer for each family member. Each one sees it differently and use it differently. I believe that today the most used capacities of a computer is gaming, wordprocessing and internet browsing, usually depending on who uses it.

Ok, this is all fine, but where does Linux enters the equation? Microsoft already has user profiles since Windows 95 which allow each user to customize his/her desktop, why should we use Linux? The first reason comes from the the operating system background: DOS was a single-user "operating system" with the objective of providing the minimum needed for the computer to work. Linux is not UNIX, but comes from a UNIX heritage, which has always been a multiprogrammed, multi-user operating system. This is important not because of what the operating system can do, but because of what the applications can do.

On Linux, as on UNIX systems, the programs are developed being aware that many different users will use it, and each one will have its different configuration on his home directory. On DOS the programs saved their configurations were they wanted. Here the configuration is done per program, not per user. Even with Windows NT this continues to be a true statement. If, like me, you've ever had to deploy NT desktop machines with permissions as closed as possible and several programs working, you know exactly what I mean.

Other than this, the only real reason to use Linux in the Family Computer is permissions. Once the Family Computer will use PC technology, wich is known to be poor in security if you have physical access to the machine, this comes not as the ultimate security feature, but a simple protection against "distractions". Who has never heard a story of a work/report/important letter being erased from the hard disk by a child that needed the disk space to play?

Of course there are other features that could be useful on a family environment, like disk quotas, X for remote execution of programs in a little house network, etc. But the most important idea is that you have a computer that's the house's computer, and yet your own at the same time.

João Miguel Neves is a student in Computer Science and Electrical Engineer in IST, Lisbon, Portugal.