LJ Archive

Linux for Suits

The Fracturing Desktop

Doc Searls

Issue #119, March 2004

A business work system is not a family entertainment center. Doc points out where the “desktop” market is heading and where Linux fits.

Back in 1997, not long after Microsoft famously bought WebTV for $425 million US, I was approached by Dave Feinleib, then a Microsoft executive, to write a chapter for a book he was compiling on the coming convergence of—naturally—the Web and TV. At first the book wasn't going to be published by Microsoft, but that's what ended up happening. In typical Microsoft fashion (and over Dave's objections), it was given a terrible title: The Inside Story of Interactive TV and Microsoft WebTV for Windows. This title was too bad, because it otherwise was a good book, containing little promotional poop about Microsoft products.

My chapter was the biggest one in the book. I'm glad I wrote it, because it forced a lot of thinking that ended up in The Cluetrain Manifesto (www.cluetrain.com/book). The concluding paragraphs of my chapter, written almost six years ago, have relevance to the desktop focus of this month's issue:

This might look like a long shot, but I'm going to bet that the first 50 years of TV will be the only 50 years. We'll look back on it the way we now look back on radio's golden age. It was something communal and friendly that brought the family together. It was a way we could be silent together. Something of complete unimportance we could all talk about.

And, to be fair, TV has always had a high quantity of good stuff. But it also had a much higher quantity of drugs. Fred Allen was being kind when he called it “chewing gum for the eyes”. It was much worse. It made us stupid. It started us on real drugs, such as cannabis and cocaine. It taught us that guns are the best way to solve problems and that violence is ordinary. It disconnected us from our families and communities and plugged us into a system that treated us as a product to be fattened and led around blind, like cattle.

Convergence of the Web and TV is inevitable. But it will happen on the terms of the metaphors that make sense of it, such as publishing and retailing. There is plenty of room in those metaphors—especially marketing—for ordering and shipping entertainment freight. The Web is a perfect way to enable the direct-demand market for video goods that the television industry was never equipped to provide, because it could never embrace the concept. They were in the eyeballs-for-advertisers business. Their job was to give away entertainment, not to charge for it. So what will we get? Gum on the computer screen or choice on the tube?

It'll be no contest, especially when the form starts funding itself.

Bet on Web/TV, not TV/Web.

Microsoft bet the other way and lost. What they offered was Web-on-TV, not TV-on-Web. The WebTV product was a device, plus a service, for the tube. It failed in the marketplace. Today the brand is dead, and the webtv.com URL redirects browsers to MSN TV, a service the site calls “a combination of an easy-to-use set-top box and an affordable monthly subscription”. The site has all the energy of a headstone.

Meanwhile, look at what's happening to TV. For starters, TVs aren't tubes anymore. All the best new TVs (soon, all TVs) are flat-panel plasma and LCD screens. They're essentially computer monitors, only with bigger pixels and blurrier images, unless they're displaying high definition broadcasts (which are still rare) or DVDs (which are still merely enhanced 640×480 images).

More importantly, TV programs are simply another form of content. That's the lesson taught by new flat-panel monitors that include a TV tuner at little or no extra cost. Right now CompUSA sells a tuner-equipped KOGi 17" 1280×1024 monitor for $399 US (after a $100 rebate). And prices are sure to drop further by the time you read this.

If you want to be more than a desk potato and actually do something with your TV input, you can put the tuner where it belongs—inside your computer. CompUSA has TV tuner cards for less than $40 US, and there are plenty of hacks to make them work with Linux. There also are plenty of hacks that let your TV do TiVo-like PVR duty. See Video for Linux (www.exploits.org/v4l) for piles of information on these and other projects.

Although most home desktop machines still are all-purpose devices, the TV convergence that's beginning with monitors is a harbinger of two huge forks that are coming in the desktop computing category. The first fork is one between home and office environments, the other is between fixed and mobile (desktop and laptop) in both environments. The two forks are orthogonal, and the 2 × 2 result is a marketplace that's fracturing into four different categories (Table 1).

Table 1. The New Fractured Desktop Market

FixedEntertainment centerGeneric desktop
MobileHome desktop replacement laptopRoad warrior notebook or laptop

In this new market the home PC turns into a family entertainment center—or what Steve Jobs calls a digital lifestyle hub—and the office PC turns into a generic desktop. The needs in each environment are so different that there's little reason for the two even to maintain the same form factor. Your home PC needs the backplane and connections to handle USB and FireWire devices, game controllers, coaxial and composite video input from your cable TV or satellite box and so forth. Your office PC needs to be cubicleware: a monitor with a CPU that's connected to the Net and not much more. At home your application suite includes a potentially infinite variety of stuff. At work you need e-mail, a browser, minimal office productivity applications and your company's arcane internal applications. More important, for your company's sake, your cubicle's box needs to be managed, secured and supported easily. All of which are reasons why Linux is getting big, fast, in the generic desktop quadrant. (See this month's LJ Index for some of the huge numbers flying around.)

Laptops also are getting far more capable. Not long ago, if you wanted big storage, a large flat-screen or DVD burner, your only choice was a desktop. Now all those features (including screens up to 1600×1200) are available in desktop replacement laptops. Add Wi-Fi, standard now on most new laptops, and your home office can be anywhere. The choice for the road warrior professional is mostly a matter of size. And regardless of size, the trend is clear: the most personal computers today are laptops, not desktops.

In the January 2004 issue, I outlined the challenges that still face Linux on laptops. Since then a number of new Linux laptops have appeared, notably from Lindows and Element. At this moment, Lindows (whose LindowsOS is based on Debian) has a Laptop Edition that addresses familiar power-management and wireless card device driver issues, and it is sold bundled with other brands, starting at well under $1,000 US. Element is selling a Linux Tablet for $999 US and a notebook for $799 US. More significantly, Mike Hjorleifsson, Element's CEO, tells me his company is working closely with VIA, NVIDIA and ATI to give Linux at least parity performance alongside Windows and Mac laptops that use the same kinds of devices, such as DVD and CD-RW drives. This is a significant development. When I asked Hjorleifsson, “Are you driving a truck through the hole Intel left open when it neglected to release Centrino device drivers for Linux?”, he said, “You've got it.”

It's reasonable to expect the big OEMs—Dell, HP and IBM—to continue protecting the high margins on their Windows laptops for as long as possible by not marketing equally functional Linux alternatives. And that's fine, because it leaves the market open for more ambitious players who aren't afraid to discover the market demand we all know is there—and not only in this one category we used to call desktop.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

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