Sunday, 26 August 2012

Living in a post-PC world

    I've spent the weekend having a clear out. Lots of old tax papers, magazines and assorted detritus, all gone. And a load of treasures from a couple of decades of hoarding PC bits.

    Some things are easy to part with. An ISA multi-IO card, for instance, is an easy throw. I'm never going to need one of them again in my life. Or an 8-bit cheap-and-nasty Soundblaster clone from about 1990. I've never even used it since levering it out of the XT clone it came from, space wasted.

   But then I came to the pile of cables. IDE cables, do I really need ten of them? Floppy drives. CD-ROM drives. Even old hard drives of a gigabyte or two's capacity. These were real treasures a few years ago, but now I can buy a flash card with tens of gigabytes for a few quid, they simply aren't necessary.

    I realised as I was clearing out my stock of PC bits that what I was seeing was the end of an era. For the last couple of decades my computers have continuously upgraded, but they've all been desktop PCs. I still have one, an AMD Duron running Lubuntu, but my main PC is now a seven year old laptop and I'm increasingly finding my development and everyday computing happening on ARM devices. The Raspberry Pi, and Android phones.

    For me, the PC era seems to be drawing to a close. I can see the next generation of ARM tablets - either Android or Windows 8, I haven't decided yet -  will eventually replace the laptop for portability, and the next generation of Raspberry Pi-style Flash-based single board computers will replace it for development and power. My storage has already migrated from the PC - either into NAS or the cloud - so the PC with all its inbuilt peripherals and power consumption is now an increasingly redundant web browsing platform. I'm entering my personal version of the post-PC world.

    So, does anyone want a stack of fully-populated Pentium motherboards or enough 72-pin SIMMs to pave a driveway?

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Oxford Raspberry Jam meetup 3

    So last night a bunch of us made our way down to Electrocomponents HQ again  for Oxford Raspberry Jam meetup number 3. As before, a fairly informal show-n-tell format with plenty of scope for discussion, and a lively exchange of ideas.
The serial terminal in action
    It was noticeable that people are starting to get to grips with the Pi's hardware. Our previous meeting has featured limited hardware demonstrations, but this time people had brought complete projects to show us. A serial display from a POS terminal, a Pi used as a network client for an audio industry control standard, and a very neat little serial terminal using an Atmel processor and destined to become a commercial product that can fit in the top of a Pi case.
    It was also encouraging to see a discussion of the Pi's application in education. How to capture the excitement of a huge bunch of kids when you only have a lunch hour to do it in. I realised at that point that I must have been an unusually geeky teen, having saved up my 30 quid for a second hand ZX81 I needed no such encouragement to get stuck in.
RiscOS blowing raspberries.
    On the software front we had a demonstration of the latest RiscOS build. Looking very slick, but with the intriguing promise of more to come as GPU support is included. I was a willing convert to RiscOS on my Pi because of its speed and ease of use, so I am especially looking forward to what the Pi and RiscOS community can achieve in porting more up-to-date software to the platform.
    I brought along two demonstrations to the meeting. The first was a shameless use of the Pi as an appliance, a DarkELEC image. This is an OpenELEC fork that includes all the clients for UK TV-on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer and 4OD. It's an impressive distribution in that it delivers very good performance from the Pi, and a stunning picture on the Electrocomponents meeting room TV. I must have made copies of the SD card for most people in the room.
    DarkELEC might seem a frivolous use of the Pi to some, but I think such appliance distributions are important. They mean more Pis will be used rather than lie forgotten on experimenters desks, and they provide a handle to gain the interest of young people in their Pi, making it more than just a geeky toy.
Yes, that's Internet Explorer 3. Best viewed in...
    My other demonstration was at the same time a joke and a serious demonstration of the Pi's capability. I ran Windows 95 in a Bochs virtual x86 machine over Debian on my Pi. And it was just about usable, despite no effort having gone in to tuning the Bochs setup. I can think of no practical application for Windows 95 on a Pi, but it is not impossible that perhaps someone might have to run a piece of legacy DOS software somewhere and might find Bochs a useful means to do it.
    Anyway, a few tech details. Bochs is in the Debian repository, so a simple apt-get installed it. I installed Windows 95 from the CD that came with a laptop in the '90s to a 100Mb Bochs hard disk image on my desktop PC and transferred it to the Pi on a USB disk. The Pi has no CD-ROM drive and I didn't fancy trying to extract the ISO file to do the task. I used the X-windows Bochs display library, so the Debian desktop was always present in the background of the Windows 95 session. A much faster result could probably have been achieved had I compiled the SVGAlib package and run it without X, but this was more a demonstration for the laughs than practicality. As I said, "You've seen an open OS on your Pi, now here's a wide-open one!".
    So that was it. Another Oxford Raspberry Pi meeting. I look forward to seeing you at the next one.