Maddog sees computers everywhere

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Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates says the future of computing lies with the PC, and Oracle Corp.'s Larry Ellison claims we will all move to thin clients. But while these two rivals battle over where computers will go, Jon "maddog" Hall, executive director of Linux International, said that his technology crystal ball shows that both Gates's and Ellison's predictions will come true with a twist.

Hall believes the world will move toward what he calls "ubiquitous computing" where users take advantage of all kinds of different computing devices -- some of which they hardly know are there. Speaking at the Apache Con conference held here this week, the Linux operating system evangelist painted a picture of truly pervasive computing.

"Mr. Bill who lives in Redmond says the future is the PC," Hall said of Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect. "When he says PC, he seems to be talking about something running Windows or Windows NT.

"Larry, this other guy making databases, says the future is some kind of thin client," Hall said, referring to Larry Ellison, chairman and chief executive officer at Oracle. "He thinks all of the data and all of the computing will be handled on large servers."

The problem with most PCs, Hall argues, is that they are fixed in a room and are limited for some computing purposes. While the machines will grow in power, PCs will not give all users the flexibility they want. So, Hall thinks they will serve an important role in the future but will not be the center of home computing, as Gates has proposed.

On the server front, Hall agrees that large amounts of information will be kept on hardware managed by vendors and that this will help save users time and money. However, he also thinks users will always have information they want stored on their own machine and not shared with others.

"There are things I would not trust on any computer other than my own," Hall said.

Instead, users will have a mix of computing tools from PCs and servers to high-powered handheld devices for use on the road and some even more advanced "ubiquitous" computing aids.

By linking PCs, handhelds and servers with high-tech home appliances -- like an Internet-enabled refrigerator -- users will have constant access to information which affects their lives. On the way to the grocery store, a user could receive a message from the fridge indicating which purchases need to be made and where to find goods for the lowest cost. Then, after returning home, the fridge could tell the users recipes they can make based on the food purchased.

Hall predicts a time when users will have computer-aided glasses and cameras which record information throughout their lives. While the user shops, such a camera could record where certain items are in the store without the user's intervention. The next time the user enters the store with his or her computer-generated shopping list, the camera could work in tandem with a handheld device to show a map of where everything is located and the quickest route to finish the supermarket trip.

Computer-aided glasses could also record faces and help people remember things about the individuals they interact with.

"The glasses would see a face coming and send information so you could say, 'Harry, how are you and your kids -- Jane, Tom and Jennifer," Hall joked.

In order to make all of this happen, developers must tighten up their programming practices, according to Hall. He wants developers to think ahead when writing code.

"We should design applications which know you will work with them a lot on a PC but that also have specific parts written for use on a Palm," he said. Right from the start, developers could design those functions for the Palm to deliver only essential pieces of information in clear, tight ways.

As computing takes on a new face, users will not even realize it is around, Hall argued. Even things like tweak-it-yourself databases will be extremely easy to use.

"Databases will be so simple that even my mother and father can use them, and that is saying a lot," Hall quipped.

As computers grow in power and presence, Hall urged users not to be overcome by the frenetic pace of life. The machines will make many things easier, but he does not want their usefulness to pull people away from what he considers truly important.

"If you go into the office at 9 and do a good day's work, you should be able to go home at 5 and see your family and your kids grow up," he concluded.

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