We’re hearing talk these days of the “Post-PC Era” when devices like the iPad, tablet PCs, and smartphones along with cloud-based applications will ultimately replace the PC. I don’t totally buy into this as these devices don’t have the form factor or horsepower to replace the PC, at least in business environments. I do think that the venerable tower PC, outside of gamer circles, will die. It used to be standard to select a tower PC based on the number of expansion slots and bays, and it was once common to upgrade processors for more horsepower. Those days are gone and more people are using one-size-fits-all laptops or appliance-like desktop machines, and when they’re three or four years old they’re tossed out for the latest model that can run Microsoft’s latest OS and office suite.
For over the last 15 years, when you bought a PC you by default got Microsoft’s OS, Windows and usually Microsoft Office or Works. This symbiotic relationship has been dubbed “Wintel”, symbolizing the combination of Windows and Intel-based hardware. Of course Linux has made inroads over the years but despite what Linux advocates say, it’s never passed the philosophical litmus test, being able to be run by your grandmother. It continues to be the darling of techies’ desktops and runs the Internet behind the scenes.
With applications heading to the cloud and developers needing to support multiple devices running different operating systems, applications are more and more running in virtual machines such as Java rather than on the bare OS. HTML 5 is supposedly going to revolutionize web applications, bringing functionality that was previously limited to Flash applications into HTML, an open language that is universally supported.
Amateur radio in my opinion has always had an odd relationship with software, that somewhat has its roots in the mindset of 1980′s DOS PC computing. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that some of our most widely used logging and contest programs offered Windows replacements of their DOS ancestors. Our free software authors never quite embraced open source, opting more for free-as-in-beer / freeware. Nearly all notable amateur software is Windows/PC based. There is some software for Mac and Linux, but it’s more a novelty. I’ve found Linux ham radio software, especially logging programs, to often be someone’s experiment with making a database frontend rather than a concerted effort to build a major software application, like Ham Radio Deluxe or DXLab. I know this will raise the angst of Linux users, but if you want to run amateur radio applications with full functionality, it’s tough to not use a PC running Windows. I’ve tried about five times to switch to Linux in the shack and gave up. I would love to buy a Mac, but I would still need a PC to run my amateur apps.
There is a paradigm shift in software coming. The PC/Windows world is coming unseated. It’s not going away, but it’s not going to be the default “no-brainer” choice that it used to be. While we have many fine commercial and free software offerings, we’ve failed miserably in making cross-platform applications. Even our networks like Winlink, D-STAR, IRLP, and APRS are vertical “silo” applications, some tied to specific OSs or hardware, or just outright ignore open standards.
Enter the Raspberry Pi, a very inexpensive single-board computer that is for supporting economical computing in third world countries. It’s quickly turning into the latest geek fad. Never has such a small board had such computing power at such a low price, and despite being a full-fledged computer it may very well displace the popular Arduino on many experimenter’s benches. It should be a very hot commodity in amateur radio as it’s cheap and open, and ideal for hardware hackers like us. Here’s the kicker. It has an ARM processor and it can’t run Windows. The best programs we have can’t run on this device.
I don’t see the PC world ending very soon, but I have to question at what point we’re going to start sacrificing some opportunities due to our lack of cross-platform software and systems. In the past when considering software compatibility, one used to ask whether you ran a PC or Mac. Today you hear questions like, “Can I get that in my app store?”, or “Does it run on Android?”