Thursday, March 16, 2006

Subtle shift of power in computing

The front entry has been negative for too long. Time for some happy news!

I recently suffered from a disastrous system failure: [How is that for good news? Well, continue reading to see why I think this is happy news...] I think I was pushing my motherboard beyond its capabilities, and it decided to fail on me. True to my word, I looked around and purchased a used computer from a classified site locally. It only set me back by $350, and I have the following benefits:

  • An absolutely snazzy machine: 1G of RAM, a lovely video card
  • Zero price for software I do not use. The minute I got it, I installed Debian Linux anyway.
  • The benefit of low, low price
  • Supported hardware: I was assured that everything worked with Linux, and I wasn't paying for hardware which lies unused.

From the time of failure to a completely working system, I spent about six hours, most of which was spent having dinner, while my machine was running apt-get, happily synch'ing itself with the rest of the world. The old disk was shoved in, I had my $HOME again, and life was good. And after the six hours, our computing setup was identical to the previous machine: mail was being fetched as usual, all Firefox settings remained, even my .bash_history was the same, so it was difficult to tell what had changed. Except that OpenOffice took about one tenth the time to load up, and Firefox fired up in an instant.

The new machine has dual video, and I'm going to try running a dual head computing setup: two monitors, two keyboards and two mice, all connected to the same machine.

Just a week earlier, I was planning to buy a Dell machine, which would have cost us $600 or so (though it shipped with a nice LCD display, and the machine I bought doesn't have one). At the very last minute, I noticed that the USB controller was not supported in Linux, and since the motherboard had no PS2 adapters, a USB controller card was essential to connect a keyboard and a mouse. Really, who needs that kind of drama? Why would I possibly spend more time and more effort on it, when I can spend less money, get a machine which is a tad faster because of its RAM, and all the hardware is completely supported in Linux?

In a sense, brand new hardware is largely irrelevant to me. (The "to me" part is important. New hardware is very relevant to other people.)

Hardware vendors still do not get this shift completely. The glut of second hand computers means that I do have a viable alternative to purchasing a new machine, with OEM software that I do not plan to use. And with Linux, the life of a machine is typically longer than with proprietary operating systems. My previous computer was in its sixth year of use when the motherboard gave way. And in the last year, it was used very extensively.

In a sense, the freedom of software is directly translating into a freedom of hardware, which is the subtle shift that I spoke off. Not only am I not directly reliant on a software vendor, now I am also largely independent of hardware vendors, since the last few purchases have all been used.