2007 - A Very Good Year

2008.01.01

2007 is now over, 2008 stretches ahead of us filled with possibilities and opportunities.  January 1st seems like a good time to contemplate the previous year and look forward to what comes next.

From a Linux and technology point of view, I think 2007 was a tipping point.  Three of the most discussed gadget releases, the XO OLPC, The Nokia N800/810 and the Asus EeePC, were all Linux-based.  More to the point, this was because Linux was the right tool for the job, not just because it was cheap.  On the topic of cheap, Walmart also sold out of $200 Linux-based PCs.  These were largely seen as decent, solid systems sold at a lower price-point than could ever be offered with Windows.

Ah, Windows.  While Vista was released to manufacturers in late 2006, 2007 was the year that Microsoft's Next Great Release saw wide use.  It's been a rough year for the Vista development team.  Most reviews of Vista range from "It's not terrible" to "the worst tech release of the year" and "Most disappointing Software Release."  Not exactly high-praise.  In typical Windows-fashion, this version is bigger, slower, and gaudier than it's predecessors while still remaining a security problem.  Unlike with XP, though, it seems that not everyone is willing to take it.  Many users and companies are "downgrading" new laptops and PCs to XP, with news items suggesting that Vista ships on less than half of new PCs.  Vista's new security and copy protection measures have hit and annoyed almost everyone.  In fact, Microsoft has had to relent and continues to sell XP.   I would say that XP SP3 is the most anticipated Windows development for 2008 that I've heard about.

To me, the most interesting thing about Vista is that Microsoft released another typical release in the midst of changing consumer and corporate demands.  Clock-speed wars are pretty much a thing of the past now, as small embedded-like devices are seeing widespread use.  Additionally,  consumers are demanding greener products and power management and product diversity is improving to meet that demand.  This is all wonderful but it leaves Microsoft in the lurch.  Suddenly, not everyone wants the latest and greatest.  The fastest PC is no longer on the top of everyone's list.  People are looking for alternatives and this often means Linux.

Vista is large and unwieldy and was released at the exact same time that everyone, from Intel to Joe Sixpack, was looking for something simple to get the job done.  Unlike Vista, Linux can scale from routers to supercomputers.  Manufacturers have a common, well understood base that they can use for free and customize to their exact needs.  This flies in the face of Microsoft's traditional one-size-fits-all development model.  They will clearly have to adapt quickly or be left behind.  Vista was certainly a step in exactly the wrong direction.

2007 also saw some interesting Linux releases and developments.  Red Hat released RHEL 5.0, a server-grade distribution that is very popular in America.  Notable items with this release include the extensive use of the Xen hypervisor.  Novell also continues to release solid versions of SuSE, while moving closely in line with Microsoft.  On the desktop-front, Ubuntu has had two very solid releases, though 7.10 feels much less refined to me than 7.04 did.  Despite this, Dell has finally begun shipping Ubuntu-based Linux laptops.  At the moment, you can order several desktop and laptop configurations running Ubuntu 7.10.  Getting back to Vista again for a moment, Dell also had to relent and offer Windows XP in addition to Windows Vista.  Like the inclusion of Ubuntu in their line-up, this was a direct response to customer demand.  It's been nice to see large companies having to listen to customers.

On that topic, 2007 has also seen shifts in the recording industry.  CD sales are down, digital sales are up and we may finally be seeing an end to DRM-laden digital music files.  Early this year, Steve Jobs wrote an open letter to the recording industry calling for an end to DRM.  Just after this, EMI offered up a selection of DRM-free albums on iTunes.  Since then, an additional two of the big four have followed suit, offering straight MP3 files on Amazon's competing music store.  With luck, the last holdout, Sony, will also see the error of its ways and relent.  It has long been my opinion that digital tracks can only succeed without DRM restrictions.  While the iTMS offers a decent option, I, for one, wouldn't use it if you couldn't strip out the DRM. (Buy, burn, rip, repeat.)

It wasn't all good news with the RIAA:   They continued their bizarre practice of suing their customers, winning a court case forcing an American woman to pay almost $10,000 per song.  While this has slowed down P2P activity in the short-term, this is akin to closing the barn door after the horses have left.  Even worse, there have been indications that the RIAA is pushing for legislation that would make it illegal to rip CDs.  And they call America the land of the free.  Thankfully, these problems do not exist in Canada and smaller, more innovative labels seem to be stepping up with compelling content and new business models that embrace the Internet, digital content and even P2P networks.  The RIAA are large dinosaurs flailing about on their way to extinction.  There will be collateral damage, but at the end of the day, if they fail to adapt, they will become relics of the past.

Personally, 2007 saw interesting technology shifts for me at work and at home.  The N800 and EeePC have finally made Linux my default mobile computing option again.  While the N800 is more ambitious, the EeePC in particular has been a spectacular purchase.  Since I bought it, I have pretty much stopped using the N800 and almost never use my MacBook as a laptop, thought it's still my primary home machine and my first choice for doing any real work.  I've been mostly using Mac laptops since 2003.  The EeePC is the first Linux laptop I've used in years that offers compelling advantages (size, weight, price) over an Apple.  It's great to be going home to a Linux laptop.  I've felt a bit like a traitor for the last few years.

Between the N800 and EeePC, I've finally given up on Palm OS.  This was a bit painful.  I've been using PalmOS since 1998 but haven't found anything compelling from Palm since the Tungsten C.  Now, I use the EeePC with Thunderbird/Lightning for a calendar, the N800 for very small, ultra portable browsing, and an old RIM BlackBerry (made in Canada!) when I really need a PDA.  (Not very often.)  RIP Palm, you used to be cool.  I used the platform for almost a decade.  Now it stands as a shining example of the problems with closed development.  Times changed, they didn't.  All of that innovation is now lost in a drawer in my basement.  While not as elegant, I've now found Open alternatives that offer me far more flexibility and features, not to mention a promising future.

At work, Linux and virtualization is continuing to march on.  For improved stability, flexibility and availability, I now host two Windows domain controllers in VMWare sessions on Linux servers.  A third Linux box serves as a VMWare image host, typically running between three and seven virtual machines.  All of this runs on a relatively low-end PC that could be purchased for about $700CDN.  Impressive.

The lab machines are all still Windows PCs, Solaris is down to one server that is the linchpin of the undergraduate network, and it's been a rock.  We've even replaced the DB2 server with a Linux box running RHEL 5.   There seems to be growing interest in both Mac OSX and Linux in the labs.  We currently have six Linux PCs running Ubuntu 6.06.1 that students access remotely, but I wouldn't be surprised if we have a few non-Windows machines in the labs proper next year.

That's it for my tech wrap-up for 2007.  All told, I found it to be a very good year.


(This post was originally composed in AbiWord on my EeePC.  It's a great little writing machine too!)