Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What operating system will I end up using tomorrow?

The battle lines have finally been drawn. Microsoft has thrown Windows 7 into the ring, Apple OSX, and the final contender has been Linux with its army of open source developers. I will coincide the point that companies have supported Linux, but this has been centered around the server market. In that case a robust system that includes a combination of Windows Server and Linux based systems, along with other systems. The consolidation of this market is highly unlikely in the near future. Additionally, I feel this aspect of computing has little influence on the future of computing, it has become a transparent layer confined to the inner workings of data centers.

The point of interest is the desktop, but the battle may have already moved to a new front. While Microsoft and Apple fight for the desktop, Google has hoisted the flag of Linux in order to take over the internet. Immediately after Google Chrome launched, a new web browser by Google that this blog post is being typed in, I conjectured that Chrome was designed to be an operating system. Anyone familiar with how operating systems are composed would likely have reached the same conclusion. The architecture was simply too complex for an ordinary web browser.

What does it mean now that Google has entered the operating system market with Chrome OS? Not much at the moment, but there are some long term consequences. The trajectory of Windows and OSX moving forward are in the same direction. While they differ in some major aspects, they are only a few degrees apart. Even Ubuntu is on the same path as Microsoft and Apple, but Chrome OS has taken off in an entirely new direction. Think of it like everyone is trying to colonize Mars by building bigger and bigger ships, but Google just sent a tiny one man rocket to Pluto.

Chrome OS seems to have a major shortcoming in that it does not support any native Linux applications, even though it would be technically possible to run them. Why make such an anti-geek decision? The answer is not clear at the moment, but a few things can be guessed at. First, the system will be easy to use and target the average consumer. Taking the Apple approach of tightly coupling the hardware to the software will make the experience very pleasant. They are taking a Microsoft approach by providing a platform that developers can build applications on that will reach many millions of people. Restricting Chrome OS to only a web browser may not work at this point in time, but as we move to a more cloud based society, this may become the best option for security and sustainability.

The general trend at the moment is towards more centralized computing power. This pendulum has moved back and forth over the years, but with ubiquitous network access it may find itself stuck at the centralized computing position in the near future. While it is not possible to perform high definition video editing entirely in the browser now, nothing is stopping someone from making a method for doing this type of work. Think of even the most complicated applications, PhotoShop, AutoCad, Mathmaticca, these could all be rendered in the browser in some method. While a high power server will need to stand behind these applications, the front end does not require much processing power. I can not think of a single application that could not run by having a very stripped down, browser based interface into a system that stands behind it. Companies are already working on this with video games that require high frame rates and quick response times. While for consumers it makes sense for companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to provide the processing power, companies could run their own local services that they manage to insure uptime and responsiveness.

What is the conclusion to reach here? The point to take away is that we do not know what the future will hold for technology. While I support the improvements that Microsoft has made with Windows 7 and find some of their applications, such as OneNote, to be central to my daily productivity, the next big thing is still out of focus. Chrome OS is focusing on Netbooks today, but this is only the beginning. However, I can imagine a world where all of our devices run a front end platform that is simple a window into the internet. It does not matter who made the window or how it works, by this point in time the web will become the universal human language. My hope, my dream is that this arrives in such a fashion that is open and free. Will Google deliver on these dreams, I can not say. However, it appears that the move is towards the centralization of computing and the ramifications of this have yet to be felt.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Preserving the History of Engineers' Days

As the Director of Administration for Speed School Student Council one of my main responsibilities is to "keep all Speed Student Council records other than financial." In this modern age of technology, this is coming up with a system to use modern technology in such a way that it will not be lost to history. This has primarily materialized in how I manage the Student Council website (http://speedcouncil.org). Specifically, the main records that SSSC produces are meeting minutes. At the moment, I am using Google Docs to manage these documents and it is working out nicely for the generation of new content.

While I still want to tackle the issue of all of the old meeting minutes, I have been actively uncovering historical records in another area. Engineers' Days, now known as Engineering Exposition, is a long standing tradition at Speed School. My new mission has been digitizing the past programs from the events and posting them on http://engineering-expo.com.

I have been scanning in the collection of old programs that have survived the years in the council office. The oldest program that survived was from 1975. However, even older programs dating back to the 1930's have survived in the University Archives.

What I have been doing is scanning in the programs and creating PDF versions of the paper programs. This is a good first step, but how is it possible to preserve these records online without trusting that some service is around years from now. The approach I have taken is somewhat complicated, but it seems to be working.

The new E-Expo website is hosted using an install of MediaWiki that allows for very simple editing. The PDF files can be easily uploaded to the wiki and made available on the internet. However, the level of accessibility is somewhat limited. Google has made available Google docs Viewer which translates any PDF or PowerPoint into an HTML iFrame. This way the actual PDF is hosted by SSSC, but an easy way of viewing the document is provided by Google.

Here is the 1975 Program for Engineers' Days:

All of the programs and information about each of the past events is available under Past Events on the E-Expo website.

Moving forward I still need to find a way to get digital copies of the programs that are located in the University Archives. Because the library charges to scan in these documents there is no means for getting digital copies of these materials at the moment.

Additionally, even with the programs hosted on council's website, they may not survive the test of time and technology. One method of preserving these records may be to release them under a Creative Commons license and publish them to the Internet Archive.

This task has taken up quite a bit of my time, but I feel that preserving this history is well worth all of the work that it takes.