PC Expo WrapUp

by John D. Biggs

The veterans at New York’s PC Expo were amazed; they remembered years when the exposition floor was jammed with people. “It was hard to get across the room”, I heard someone say. “It was hard to pass people in the aisles.”

This year, no inflatable Intel beach balls were given out this year, no water-filled mousepads, no plastic frisbees. People wandered from booth to booth empty-handed, looking for a handout. None came. There were no big booths, no folks dressed like gorillas or cartoon dogs handing out CD-ROMS. To the naked eye, the show was a flop, another dried up ghost town left over after the fast-money speculators fled the state, leaving dead rivers and debt.

To be completely honest, I too was almost fooled. The day I arrived I was disheartened to see that the hall was almost empty. Microsoft, Sony and Palm had their own private theme parks set up to showcase new technology, but there wasn’t much to see. Some office routers and blinking WiFi access ports, maybe a fancy PDA or two and shiny aluminum cases–eye candy. But then I started to notice a few things.

Open source, although not hyped, was everywhere. A fax server by Morgan Hill, California-based Castelle, basically a black box that acted as a multiuser hub for outgoing and incoming messages, runs Linux. Although the screenshots in the company brochure portray a world full of Windows, Tux is running the show.

Toshiba’s new home appliance, the Magnia, is a combination multimedia and mass storage server, with a sexy web-based front end that complements the XP color scheme wonderfully. But the boxes run Linux. Although the systems were designed for Mom and Dad to listen to jazz MP3s while browsing vacation photos, the real work is done by open-source software.

The rest of the hardware vendors are thinking along the same lines. Although Microsoft is releasing its Windows Tablet PC Edition on November 7, ViewSonic’s Dan Coffman said that his company’s tablet PC is ready and developer units will be shipping soon. The dockable machines are about as thick as a laptop but are completely screen driven, so there’s no bulky keyboard to get in the way. “These are going to be for the IT market first”, he said, and it’s clear that they’ll be pretty useful. Once open-source developers get their hands on these, the applications will be astounding.

Everyone from Samsung to Imation are working diligently to prepare Linux drivers for their latest creations. A company called Disk-On-Key, which makes ultra-portable USB memory sticks, pointed out that it had prepared a patch for its flagship product, a 128MB storage device that fits on a key-chain.

The one thing that the community must start looking at, however, is DVD-R and DVD-RW authoring. The bandwagon rolled up to PC Expo this year in a big way, and without a compelling reason to switch to Linux, multimedia companies that could be wooed away by cheap clusters and great up-time will be stuck rendering and creating video on that other desktop. The current helpings are slim when it comes to home DVD video creation, and none of the tools shown at the Expo seem able to withstand the ultimate test of a new technology: can Grandma use it? But the a lot of the programmers at the show are steering away from releasing Linux versions of their software.

Ultimately, however, someone will find a way to pull it all together, and DVD burners will be as ubiquitous as CD-Rs are right now.

The show’s tag-line, emblazoned in three foot letters above the doors to the Expo, was “The Future is in Here”. Looking at those words from an open-source perspective, the meaning was clear. Open source is inside everything and will be the driving force behind the evolution of appliances and hardware in the workplace and home. It’s a way of thought that is open and financially sound (no CFO will ever be fired for erasing the cost of software from the books in order to raise profits). Front ends won’t matter once everything, from your home stereo to your financial data, is wireless web-enabled. The guts of the machines in our world will become as remote to the normal user as the clockwork in a wristwatch.

If PC Expo made anything clear this year, it’s that the tech we all knew and loved in the roaring 90s is gone, and a new idea is emerging: people want cool stuff that works, not cool stuff that saves us time by allowing us to plan parties and buy movie tickets or pet food on-line. Ultimately, whose logo appears on the Start button is meaningless in a truly wired world. The real winners will be those that give users an incredible experience as soon as they hit the ON button, rendering the idea of proprietary operating systems and environments obsolete.

John D. Biggs is a writer and consultant living in Brooklyn, New York.