Paradigm Changes

by Eric Schwartz
from the AmiTech Gazette, April 2010

It's been a busy month so far, even though it's not even half over as of this writing. There's the Easter weekend and the income tax season. Luckily I got my income tax work mostly out of the way in March, save for a few loose ends (in this case mailing out the paperwork related to my tele-filed state taxes). l am, however, still in progress on helping out my father with his income taxes. I'm hoping he knows something I don't, as the early drafts of the tax forms look to have an expensive result. On a related note, there won't be a President's column this week, so I hope you all can survive without.

There has even been some Amiga-related news this month. A fair amount of press (Amiga press, anyway) has been thrown around announcing the Amiga 25th Anniversary Vintage Computer Festival happening in the UK. That's right, this year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of the original Amiga 1000, in all its 256K, keyboard garage glory. Makes you feel (more) old, doesn't it? A few things slated to show at this UK gathering include the AmigaOne X1000 and Timberwolf (the most recent incarnation of a Mozilla/Firefox Amiga porting project) with more things possibly to be announced later. Sounds like an interesting time, even if it's overseas. Finally, on the outskirts of the Amiga subject, the Research in Motion corporation, better known as the people behind the Blackberry smartphone, recently bought out QNX. For those who don't remember, QNX were partnered with Amiga Inc. For some time, providing the OS software base for their "Amiga Anywhere" projects, vaunted (mostly by Amiga Inc., not much by anyone else) to be the second coming, scaling from phones and mobile devices to desktop computers with a hypothetical "Amiga OS5." The story mentioned the QNX software being applied to embedded applications, such as computers in cars and the like, though the combo of Blackberry and QNX seems to hold more promise than that of QNX and Amiga Inc.

As usual, I've been thinking and musing about various computer-related stuff. I've written in the past about the march of technology toward smaller and smaller devices that are more and more powerful, though I recently find myself more fascinated with how consumers can either follow the flow or do something less expected. Home computers started with the desktop boxes, and then the laptops came along. Laptops were not as powerful as desktop machines, but were portable and let people get some work done on the road, at least the basic necessary stuff. Nowadays the gulf between the laptops and the desktops is not so obvious. Desktops are still more powerful, cheaper, or both compared to similar laptops, if only because they don't need to fit all hardware inside a slim portable case, but the average laptop is powerful enough for almost anyone who isn't a bleeding-edge gamer or in some other field that requires more gigabytes or gigahertz than most, to the point where it's not uncommon for people to have one or more laptops as their primary home systems, with no desktop boxes in sight. Still, as great and portable as laptops are, there was a need for smaller computing devices, and the "palmtop" computers, "PDAs", and related devices were born. Like the laptops in their infancy, these handheld computing devices were less powerful, geared toward simpler but necessary applications, like note-taking and address books. Unlike the laptops, they had a wide variety of interfaces and input methods, dictated in part by their smaller size, where the conventional keyboard and mouse don't work so well. Palmtop/PDA methods ranged from short-form versions of larger computers to touch screens and pen-based interfaces pioneered by devices like the Apple Newton and popularized by the palm pilot and its descendants.

Like the laptops before them, the handheld devices are much more powerful and capable, and very different from the organizers of old. Most notably, they merged with another ubiquitous handheld device, the cellphone, creating the internet-connected "smartphone," as well as handling the functions of other portable electronics, such as music players or handheld games. It's possible to do as much if not more than a laptop could not that many years ago, all in the palm of your hand. They haven't quite supplanted laptops in the same way laptops pushed aside desktops, though they have taken much of the niche laptops had in their earlier days. There is one more niche though, recently discovered -- that of the "somewhere in-between." This is, at least for now, the domain of the "netbook," a smaller low-end laptop primarily for Internet surfing and (relatively) low-demand applications. One-might think, being neither laptop nor palmtop, and not really that much less expensive than some laptops, that they wouldn't be that popular, and yet they are, in part for being more portable than the average laptop, yet offering the size and real estate to operate standard apps more comfortably than on a 3-inch palm-sized screen. This line is currently in the infancy the others went through, so who knows exactly what the future result will be. A first possible evolution is on the way in the form of Apple's iPad, which is half upsized iPhone/iPod touch and half Apple's play at the electronic book reader and netbook markets. Still, it brings the iPhone touch interface and applications to a greater amount of screen real estate, making a wider variety of "standard" computer applications possible, or at least easier, applied to the new interface. It could become a whole new paradigm and change the whole computing world, or just be a detour along the way to the future. I guess we'll find out based on how smug Steve Jobs looks in the future.