Originally Published: Wednesday, 5 April 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Reviews Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Hackers vs. the Dream Computer

I have spent several of my "formative years" as an engineer inside of the PC industry. As I watch technologies come and go like fashion fads in music videos, I see a strange trend emerging ... a trend that threatens most everything that brought me into the computer fold. It's a trend that is illustrated by the recent fervor over the Netpliance i-opener.

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I have spent several of my "formative years" as an engineer inside of the PC industry. As I watch technologies come and go like fashion fads in music videos, I see a strange trend emerging ... a trend that threatens most everything that brought me into the computer fold. It's a trend that is illustrated by the recent fervor over the Netpliance i-opener.

The i-opener illustrates the trend for the consumer PC ... a small & simple gizmo that works right out of the box. As the iMac illustrated, many consumers don't know the difference between SIMMs and DIMMs ... and they don't care as they get an easy to use PC that doesn't cost a lot. The dream of most PC manufacturers is to cater to this market, the folks who buy a box and never open it. This type of user is less likely to perform some sort of sadistic feat that requires tech support ... which is where many vendors loose their slim profit margin (800-number fees plus the cost of maintaining a somewhat knowledgeable support staff).

So the industry's "dream computer" looks like something sold in a Wal-Mart(tm) electronics department ... a $199.99 hunk of brightly-colored plastic in a shrink wrap package with no visible screws or slots. Upgrades occur via external connectors (parallel port, PCMCIA, USB, 1394, etc.) and the box is cheap enough to toss when the better/faster/cooler model comes around next Christmas. It's the model adopted by game console manufacturers ... now it's used by WebTV, Netpliance, and Microsoft's X-Box.

But for every dozen consumers that are willing to buy an information appliance for their everyday web, e-mail and homework needs there's the one hacker. That kid who always asked "why" in science class ... the dweeb who worked the filmstrip projector ... the person who networks their house before the furniture gets moved in. Power users are a mixed blessing for the modern computer industry. In the early days (a.k.a. 1992), only "freaks and geeks" lurked the Internet ... the power user was the main cash-cow for computer manufacturers. Now the person who figures out how to get that extra 100 MHz out of their system is feared by system vendors who live on thin profit margins. Geeks buy the latest hardware at premium cost, but we also manage to make cheap hardware do expensive things.

This is where Netpliance met their nemesis ... the cunning hardware hacker. Presented with a nifty looking LCD-panel, the hacker opens the case to find a fairly standard PC. True, a 180 MHz system with 32 MB of memory is no barn-burner, but to a LINUX geek it's perfect for a X-Windows web terminal. So we solder, tweak and hack ... until the built-in QNX operating system is replaced with our favorite distro. We get a neat looking terminal.

Too bad Netpliance gets the shaft ... their profit in manufacturing the i-opener was the $21.95 per month you-can-only-get-it-from-us internet service provider contract. The i-opener is what business-types call a "loss-leader" ... the toaster the bank gives away for signing up for the checking account, which they'll pay for in time with interest and bank fees. While many of us would love to have a LINUX thin-client like the i-opener, the companies making such devices need to attach a service fee to make it profitable in the long run.

So while we drool over the next "dream computer", the manufacturer is trying to find a way to keep the hacker's hands out of the box. While my existence in my chosen field depends on their success, my secret wish is that they never truly succeed.

Links open-i i-opener LINUX "Netpliance I-Opener Running Linux !!" @ LINUX Hacker Netpliance

When not pontificating on bad design ideas, Brian Richardson works on BIOS at American Megatrends. In his fleeting spare time Brian writes, plays drums, studies SaJiDo karate, appeases his wife, and attempts to fix up his house/barn. Brian is quite possibly the only person in the computer industry to request a day off to take a sick goat to the vet.





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