Crash! Boom! Bang!

Posted on 12th March 2008

DanDan might be a little more dynamic than myself or Nicole, but the current state of his laptop does make me wonder whether modern day computer devices are built well enough to withstanding the abuse that a child can inflict on it, especially when more and more of them are aimed at the education market. In several of the games DanDan plays online, he needs to use the arrow keys to get around, particularly the racing games. He has a habit of bashing a little too hard and as a result the left arrow key has fallen off and I can't repair it. I am now looking at buying a 'spares or repairs' item on eBay with which to use as a spare parts machine should anything further go wrong.

With all these cheaper computers being released recently, I wonder just how robust their keyboards are? If they were sturdy enough I might even think about getting a family one so that both DanDan and Ethne can use it for more educational purposes and then let DanDan carry on bashing the hell out of his own laptop until we run out of parts to replace it with. By then hopefully he won't be so eager to break it. The alternative is to get an external USB keyboard, which has keys that are easier and cheaper to replace, but then that won't be so portable.

Gone are the days when things were built to last. If only Tonka would venture into the kids computer market ;)

File Under: computers / laptop

Hot For Teacher

Posted on 11th March 2008

After last week's post about the Asus EEE PC, I thought it worth mentioning a local company (to me) in Redditch who got featured on last Wednesday's Bromsgrove Advertister. Elonex have released the first laptops for under £100 in the UK. The laptop, called The One, like the Asus EEE PC is aimed at the education market. However, I can also seeing it being a very attractive purchase for anyone wishing to buy a cheap laptop, so that they can use to browser the web, edit documents, manage their photo collection and play music. Particularly if they aren't too interested in the details and wouldn't classify themselves as a technical user.

It sounds an ideal purchase for kids to learn how to use a computer, as they are not power users and are unlikely to notice the slightly slower of the 300MHz processor. It's often annoyed me that PC and laptop manufacturers heavily promote the processor speed, how much RAM they have and how many Gigabytes their hard drives are. However unless you're playing top end games or getting a million hits a day on your web server, you rarely need that much power. In fact the user is often the blocking point, as browsing the web and editing documents rarely find the local computer maxed out on CPU, Memory or File IO. DanDan's laptop is not much faster and he happily plays flash games, although admittedly he is using Firefox on Ubuntu, so is less encumbered with bloatware that you find on every Windows machine now.

If the current trend of cheaper laptops for kids and the education market keeps going, I think a number of the major manufactures may want to re-evaluate some of their offerings. While there will always be a demand for high spec machines from developers and businesses, I can imagine that the home market will start to see a shift in it's desire to buy something more affordable and reliable. As such I see Linux and Open Source featured more and more as a viable alternative to Windows. The Linux desktop may just get a notable share of the lucrative market that Microsoft have held onto for so long.

File Under: computers / education / laptop / linux / opensource

All Moving Parts (Stand Still)

Posted on 7th March 2008

What a breath of fresh air. A comedian, actor and presenter, who actually has an interest in things in the computer world, beyond a source of writing inspiration. I recently came across a post by Stephen Fry (for those American readers, Stephen is the other member of the comedic duo, Fry and Laurie, with Laurie being Hugh Laurie currently making a name for himself in House), in his blog. The blog post that I picked up on is entitled "Deliver us from Microsoft". Reading back through other posts it appears he is quite a strong supporter of Open Source software, and to my mind, for all the right reasons.

The article in question looks at the Asus EEE PC, which was also recently (December 2007) reviewed by the LUGRadio presenters in their "Inspirational Muppetational" episode (Season 5, Episode 7). Both Stephen and the LUGRadio guys all came out praising the machine, and although they all found some form of critism for it, their view was healthy put into perspective by the fact that the aim is to provide a cheap machine for educational purposes. It isn't aimed at power users, such as myself, but those who want a laptop that can connect to the internet, enabling them to browse the web, chat to friends, edit or write office documents.

However, the most significant thing about the laptop, which is hinted at in Stephen's blog post title, is the fact it runs using Open Source software. From the Debian base (although tailered to the Asus EEE PC), through to OpenOffice and Firefox applications. The machine is perhaps the first to ever be sold commercially from the outset, where Linux is only version available, with no Microsoft product installed. Vendors are starting to realise that users are buying their machines and installing Linux on them, wiping any hint of Microsoft off, as has been apparent by the news reports of people contacting them for refunds. The choice isn't perhaps as wide spread as some of us would like, but it is getting better.

Stephen thinks that the change will happen within 5 years, and I would certainly welcome a change in the balance, with many more people running Linux as their Operating System. Linux on the desktop, has long been a challenge that Open Source developers have been making many dramatic changes to improve. DanDan and Nicole both use Ubuntu on their laptops, and I have heard of many people getting their parents, spouses, siblings and offspring to use some flavour of Linux with great results. There are still lots of gains to be made, particular in the area of closed source drivers and getting many devices (especially wireless network devices) working out of the box, but credit where credit is due, we have a lot to thank those developers of all the Linux distributions and Open Source applications. We have come a very long way in the last 5 years, and now perhaps more than ever Linux on the desktop has a real chance of challenging Microsoft's dominance in the market. I don't expect a complete take over, as I think Stephen was hinting, but I would like to see consumers being given a better, more considered option to buy an operating that works for them.

I do accept that Microsoft can be better in some areas, particularly with games, but I can see that advantage disappearing once games developers realise that a large portion of their current geek market will switch to non-Microsoft platforms. It might even challenge Microsoft to finally listen to many of the opponents and actually evaluate their security and product quality, enabling them to release more stable and reliable products. For myself, I choose Open Source partly because I find it more secure and reliable, but also because it gives me the freedom to investigate and hopefully fix problems, and potentially give back to the wider community. I already contribute to Open Source and I'd like to think that offsets all the benefits I've gained by using Open Source software.

I don't read the Guardian, but I think I'll be reading more of Stephen Fry's blog in the future. It's been an enlightening read.

File Under: computers / laptop / lugradio / opensource / technology

From Russia Infected

Posted on 6th March 2008

Yesterday MessageLabs got a mentioned on the BBC News site, under the title of Infective Art. The Metro Newspaper in the UK also ran with the story, Cyber crime art revealed.

I'm currently touring the UK with a presentation entitled Understanding Malware, which takes the six types of malware, and using the MessageLabs "Know Your Enemy" campaign images, explains a little more about what they are. The presentation has gone down very well so far and there have been some healthy discussions afterwards, with attendees trying to understand how we can get better at getting rid of malware threats from the inbox. It's unlikely to happen altogether any time soon, but with companies like MessageLabs on the case we are making it harder for the malware to get through.

I shall be taking the presentation to more parts of the UK, so if you have a user group that might be interested, please feel free to get in touch and invite me along. Note that the presentation is not a programming language or operating system talk, and is more about technology and social engineering. I shall be submitting it to LUGRadio Live, YAPC::NA and YAPC::Europe this year, so if I don't make it to your local user group, hopefully you'll be able to make one of those conferences. As an added bonus I also have some freebie giveaways for anyone who can answer the questions during my persentation, courtesy of MessageLabs :)

File Under: computers / internet / malware / security / spam / technology

Neon Knights

Posted on 5th March 2008

Following on from my previous post, I had two conversations recently where we got onto subjects relating to the demise of technophobia. In one instance I was discussing protection against viruses and malware, while the other was to do with just generally understanding how computers work and using them to your advantage. In both cases, I considered how DanDan (and Ethne to a degree) had reacted to getting his own laptop for Christmas. In 10 (maybe more) years time he will be looking for a job. By then if you don't have a decent level of computer understanding, you are going to find it very difficult to get a job, as computers and technology are becoming ever more prevalent in just about every industry, even where you might not think it.

Children growing up today, certainly in the UK, are being exposed to computer technology in most (if not all) primary schools. With desktop and laptop computers getting cheaper, more are getting them to help them with their homework, to play games or to send messages to friends and family. Those that do have a slightly more technically inquisitive nature are likely to want to do more and either write software to do cool stuff, or figure out how to get the machine to work even better. It's how I got started, although not until I was 15.

In 10 years or less the way we see the world, particularly through the eyes of our children, is going to be very different than it is today. My dad has no trouble working his way around a circuit board, and worked for Lyons computers (later ICL), on their LEO III among other things, whereas I have only basic knowledge of hardware. I have a good grasp of software design (and hopefully user interface design), and have been very fortunate to work on some very worthwhile projects, whereas my dad has no knowledge of any programming language. I wonder what DanDan and Ethne will be able to do in 20-30 years time, and what they will be able to do far better at than me? I'm quite looking forward to seeing them flourish, as I have been with some of my current colleagues, who often leaving me wishing I had their vision at the command line.

The world is changing, and I, for one, welcome our new 7 year old future overlords ;)

File Under: computers / technology

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