I admit it … I’m an Early Adopter. I’m difficult to please, impossible to shop for, and always looking for better tools and more effective techniques. On the technology adoption bell curve, I’m just behind the Innovators – rich kids who indiscriminately play with every new toy. I don’t care how new something is, only how good it is.
When I find something I do like, I’m fiercely loyal to it, and sing its praises everywhere I go. When that thing becomes mainstream, my job is done, and I start looking for something better.
I don’t care what’s “in” and “out” right now. I’ll tell you what’s going to be on the list next year, or in the next five years. Here are a few things I’m looking forward to.
1) HP Takes a Bite Out of Apple
The big “A” is turning sour. I’ve had enough of overpriced, proprietary accessories, and smug, “the problem is your fault” attitude. Sleek design is wonderful, but Steve Jobs isn’t the only guy who can hire a designer. Nor does he own the designers he does have. Jon Rubenstein, who created the iPod while working for Apple, went on to become CEO of Palm, where he overhauled their line of mobile phones, and spearheaded the development of the very cool webOS mobile operating system.
Now that Palm has been absorbed by Hewlett Packard, Rubenstein can draw on the muscle of the world’s largest technology company. I suspect that HP’s current leadership vacuum (their CEO resigned recently over a sexual harassment scandal) will give Rubenstein room to exert his influence over more than mobile technology. HP is typically thought of as a solid but thoroughly unexciting manufacturer of existing technology, but with a badass like Rubenstein near the helm, I’m anticipating seeing some innovative products with an HP logo sooner rather than later.
2) The End of OS Monopolies
For the past 25 years, we’ve had our choice of vanilla Windows or chocolate Mac. Tasty operating systems like BeOS and AmigoOS have been added to – and then removed from – the menu without attracting much attention. But there’s another flavor in town; it’s strawberry Linux and my mouth is watering.
Most moderately tech-savvy people have heard of Linux, but they generally have a vague idea of it being something complex that geeks use to do geek stuff with. That’s going to change very soon. In 2007, a company with the impossible-to-remember name of Zonbu debuted a line of personal computers that were eco-friendly, affordable and pre-loaded with software. The Zonbu systems were “cloud-assisted,” meaning that all user files were continuously backed up to Amazon S3 servers (and accessible remotely), and software updates were automatically and seamlessly installed in the background. Most interesting of all is that the Zonbu OS used Gentoo Linux, and all the bundled software was open source. The tech press was blown away by how perfectly the devices worked. Here’s a demo video from 2007.
And here’ssample of the accolades heaped on the Zonbu in 2007 and 2008.
2007 Breakthrough Awards – The Top 10 Most Brilliant Gadgets of 2007: It isn’t the technology that makes the Zonbox revolutionary, it’s the idea. – Popular Mechanics
And for you greenies, remember, this baby uses just 10 watts while a standard PC uses 200 watts, and it has EPEAT Gold status for being made entirely out of earth-friendly materials. Put that in Al Gore’s pipe and smoke it. – Gizmodo
It’s a revolution in desktop computing roughly equivalent to the advent of desktop Linux itself. It opens new doors to hardware, software, and storage possibilities that were previously closed by vendor lock-in. – Hardware In Review
...amazingly as simple to use as a Mac… this machine syncs, swaps, and backs up your data automatically, over the wire. I love it. – Gizmodo
I stand by my opinion that a Zonbu (or other Linux computer) would be an ideal system for at least 80% of the computing population – HelpMeRick.com
I’ve held off writing the review for so long, hoping to find a serious nit or two to pick. I have not been able to do it. It’s as perfect a machine as computers get. – LinuxDevices.com
Impressive, no? Unfortunately, Zonbu was a casualty of the Great Recession. Zonbu.com is still live, but the user forums reveal that the company seems to have died a slow and quiet death. Gentoo Linux, the OS that powered the Zonbu computers has also withered away, along with Fedora, Debian and a few other versions of Linux (the Linux “kernel” can be dressed up in a variety of “distros” – distributions – that add features and familiar-looking GUI elements). However, one distro of Linux has risen to the top of the heap. It’s called Ubuntu, and if this is the first time you’re hearing about it, it won’t be the last.
What’s cool about Ubuntu? For starters, it looks and operates in a very familiar manner. Just like OS X or Windows, you have a virtual desktop with folders and application icons. The learning curve for the average user is minimal. Many popular programs – such as Firefox – run in Ubuntu, and there are substitutes (e.g. Open Office instead of MS Office) for many others. Best of all, virtually everything associated with Ubuntu is open source – free to use. Training and enterprise-level installation and maintenance are fee-based services provided by the Canonical corporation, which uses that income to keep Ubuntu free and up-to-date.
Is it perfect? Of course not. But neither is OS X or Windows. Personally, I’d rather deal with bugs that I don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for! Besides, Ubuntu can be dual-booted on a Windows machine, so that if you need to use Windows you can.
While many excellent open-source and Linux-compatible applications are being produced, it will be difficult for Ubuntu to get a foot-hold in the market without a vote of confidence from either a major hardware manufacturer or a software giant.
A hitherto-unheard of company called Axon has released the Axon Haptic tablet, which allows you to install OS X, Windows or any flavor of Linux. This is an excellent first step. An easy next step would be for a mid-size manufacturer that specializes in netbooks, and doesn’t have any particular loyalty to Windows (Acer, maybe?) to be persuaded to start releasing netbooks, laptops and – eventually – desktop computers pre-packaged with Ubuntu and a suite of applications (Open Office, Firefox, etc.) similar to those provided on the Zonbu systems.
Next, perhaps a forward-thinking company like Adobe could be persuaded to release their industry-standard Creative Suite for Linux. If that were to occur, the adoption pattern of Apple computers (creative professionals first, general public next) could easily be duplicated by small, nimble companies willing to stop pushing Microsoft products. There are a lot of “ifs” in this scenario, but it’s only one possibility. The reality is that any company could start selling Ubuntu computers tomorrow, and there are any number of reasons for them to start doing so.
3) I see Linux as being part of an overall trend towards increased adoption of open source software in general. While marketing for applications like Open Office and Blender 3D (an amazingly full-featured 3D modeling and animation package) is nonexistent, these products are building a lot of name recognition. Indeed, the fact that such offerings even exist is remarkable. It’s only a matter of time before open source goes mainstream. When it does, the major software developers are going to have to step up their game to stay competitive.
Consumers are tired of paying good money for buggy software that becomes obsolete within months. If programmers are starting to figure out how to profit (monetarily or otherwise) from open source projects, and are able to continue developing quality products, it’ll be a marriage made in heaven. Since there are actually more open source apps available for Linux than any other OS, it stands to reason that Linux (whether Ubuntu or some future distro) will benefit from the momentum.
The idea of walking into Staples and picking up an exclusively Ubuntu-loaded netbook may seem absurd, but remember Palm’s webOS? Guess what: it’s essentially a distro of Linux, just like Ubuntu. And guess what I just read? (After I wrote this post, naturally.) HP is confirming rumors that the first quarter of next year will see the debut of a webOS tablet. Not only that, but a slew of manufacturers are planning Android tablets, and Android is also built on the Linux kernel.
HP vs. Apple? Check. Linux going mainstream? It won’t be long now. Hey, Bill G. and Steve J., get ready to smile and say “Ubuntu”!