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Are desktop PCs passé?

Linux-powered post-PC devices give the end-user computing direction. Linux Advisor hed: Are desktop PCs passŽ? dek: Linux-powered post-PC devices give the end-user computing direction. by Maggie Biggs

The handheld devices of today, such as the Palm, are often thought of as mere toys–like the ones you might have found under your Christmas tree–because they are limited in functionality. You certainly can use some existing handhelds to check e-mail via low-speed wireless connections or you might download Web pages to view offline. However, a new breed of mobile devices waits in the wings and this next generation of portable hardware promises to make desktop computing far less compelling for consumers and small businesses than it is today.

Linux has demonstrated good growth on servers and it’s a good fit for small businesses with tight budgets. Yet Linux has had a tough go on the desktop due in large part to existing monopolies that make it difficult to enter the market. But, the combination of Linux with the next generation of mobile devices promises functionality that is nearly on par with a desktop PC at a budget-minded price (currently around $700 with an expected drop over the next four years to $400 or less per unit).

Newer mobile devices will be able to put greater and greater resources (e.g., memory, disk cards) into smaller spaces. Moreover, advances in molecular technologies promise to put even more power (desktop equivalent) into these devices within a very short period of time.

The combination of these devices with Linux is already quite compelling since Linux can be highly customized and it’s economical. In addition, new application support is expected in the coming months that will give consumers and small businesses plenty of options to use mobile devices to carry out most of the basic computing requirements that are performed on a desktop PC today.

Another event will make mobile computing the norm in a very short time. Not only are next generation devices blending in Linux, wireless technologies are also shifting to a new generation that offers higher speed Internet access from nearly anywhere. You can expect wireless technologies to blend ever-more-tightly with the next generation of mobile computing devices.

We’re beginning to move well beyond the handhelds we have today. Below we’ll examine some of the Linux-powered devices that are now available or just around the corner. As we move beyond desktop PCs, there will be four competing technologies in the next generation of end-user devices. As you might expect, Palm Inc. will expand its efforts from its leadership in the existing handheld market into a new series of Palm devices with increased functionality.

Likewise, Microsoft will undoubtedly seek to move its Pocket PC (Windows CE) platform into several of the next generation devices. Moreover, Java will also compete as a leading technology in forthcoming devices (also known as smart devices).

Unlike the desktop arena, there is plenty of room for competition in the next generation of end-user devices. You can expect to hear about a wide variety of devices with competing technologies. Aside from Palm, Pocket PC, and Java, you’ll hear and see a lot about Linux-based mobile or smart devices. Moreover, you’ll likely see plenty of devices that blend Linux and Java because the two are complementary technologies.

Linux, in particular, offers device owners a leg up over other possibilities because embedded versions of the Linux operating system can be highly customized to meet the needs of most any device that consumers and small businesses will need. Unlike Linux on the desktop, you’ll not need to worry about installation and upkeep. The device you buy will have a Linux operating system built in and it is likely that you’ll not even realize what operating system you’re running. The most important thing for consumers and small businesses is a reasonable price (which Linux-powered devices can offer) and applications that are useful.

Here and now

One example of next-generation devices that are arriving (and I wish one had been under my Christmas tree) is SK Telecom’s IMT-2000. This device combines the attributes of a handheld with the functionality of a cell phone. You can talk with this device, check e-mail, or surf the Web. It also supports video conferencing and voice-over IP. The IMT-2000 is powered by Palm Technology’s Tynux OS-an embedded Linux operating system.

HNT’s Exilien 201 is also a very interesting handheld PC. It runs MIZI Linuette–another embedded Linux–and it offers e-mail, Web browsing, and a built-in camera. You might also use the Exilien to listen to MP3s, read today’s news, or maintain your schedule.

The Linux-based PDA arena also continues to expand. Sharp has introduced its Zaurus SL-5000D, which is powered by another embedded Linux-Lineo Embedix. It offers a built-in QWERTY keyboard, e-mail, and Web browsing.

Likewise, the first Linux-based PDA–GMate’s YOPY–continues to mature in what it can offer. Like the Sharp PDA, YOPY includes a QWERTY keyboard. In addition, you might add global positioning system (GPS) support or add a microdrive onto it to store more than a gigabyte of data on your device. Expect the capacity of micro-drives to increase very quickly, too.

Agenda Computing also offers a Linux-based PDA known as the VR3. The VR3 offers functionality that is similar to the Palm. You might use the VR3 to track your schedule or keep your to-do list.

Going forward

So, is it time to dump your desktop PC? The answer is no–not this month or even this year. However, in the next 18 to 24 months, a Linux-based smart device is definitely a consideration for replacing expensive desktop PCs.

A few things need to occur before consumers and small businesses will find these post-PC devices worthwhile. First, devices still need to mature a bit. As more power gets packed onto smaller and smaller chips, additional capabilities will be possible with these devices. This will take time.

Additionally, post-PC devices need time to blend-in next generation wireless technologies. These next generation wireless technologies are sometimes referred to as 3G, meaning they are third generation. 3G wireless will enable the higher connection speeds we all need to make post-PC devices truly usable anywhere.

And, finally, there are applications. Consumers need applications on post-PC devices, such as personal financial software. Small businesses need end-user applications on post-PC devices that let users interact with server-based company data.

The good news is that the tools exist for these applications to become reality in a very short period of time. Software developers are beginning to apply their efforts on smart device applications. In addition, business applications will quickly be able to span between smart devices (on the end-user side) and business servers.

Linux is a powerful plus in the post-PC device arena. It promises to rein in the cost of smart devices, especially when compared to other devices that are not running embedded Linux.

This is a good time to consider the investments you have in desktop PCs in light of what is just around the corner. Desktop PCs have become a commodity item and upgrades are now more difficult to justify given that the desktops we have today are capable of fulfilling our needs. It may make good sense to maintain your existing hardware investments just a bit longer in order to move to post-PC devices (when they are viable) to reduce the cost of end-user computing.

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