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"Good Enough" Computers Are the Future 515

An anonymous reader writes "Over on the PC World blog, Keir Thomas engages in some speculative thinking. Pretending to be writing from the year 2025, he describes a world of 'Good Enough computing,' wherein ultra-cheap PCs and notebooks (created to help end-users weather the 'Great Recession' of the early 21st century) are coupled to open source operating systems. This is possible because even the cheapest chips have all the power most people need nowadays. In what is effectively the present situation with netbooks writ large, he sees a future where Microsoft is priced out of the entire desktop operating system market and can't compete. It's a fun read that raises some interesting points."
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"Good Enough" Computers Are the Future

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  • by Midnight Thunder ( 17205 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @04:25PM (#27678603) Homepage Journal

    This kinda of reminds of the '640KB should be enough for everyone' theory. If everyone is just content surfing the web and writing e-mails, then sure the 'good enough' solution sounds fair, but if 'good enough' also means dealing with a Windows ME experience then no thanks. At the same time what is considered 'good enough' will evolve over time and new solutions are created and user expectations evolve.

    Will my 'good enough' computer handle my photo library, my 32MP entry level camera, recognise the faces in my photo collection. This sound like far fetched stuff today, but as these technologies peculate down from high end systems and people get used to the computer doing more of their mind-numbing repetitive tasks, user expectation will adapt and want them in their 'good enough' computers.

    In many ways plenty of people are already using 'good enough' computers. Whether they are satisfied with them is a whole other question.

  • Get what you pay for (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mc1138 ( 718275 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @04:25PM (#27678607) Homepage
    I'm all for cutting costs using an open source OS, but the problem with increasingly cheaper hardware is staying power. Yeah it might be all you need, but how long is it going to be around for. Of course the trade off is, is it cheaper to get short term cheap computers, or long term expensive computers. And, to top it all off, if we do switch to a disposable computing model will we having recycling programs in place to make sure we reuse the rare and valuable parts, and keep the really toxic parts out of landfills?
  • by explosivejared ( 1186049 ) * <> on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @04:25PM (#27678615)
    There is nothing particularly insightful about the article. Obviously the largest portion of the computer using population would never need cutting edge power, so effectively "good enough" has always been the paradigm. How many of us have super computers? This is just a piece with some wishful thinking hoping that people eventually see through Microsoft's coerced perpetual upgrade cycle.
  • Re:meh (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Feminist-Mom ( 816033 ) <> on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @04:30PM (#27678669)
    There will always be higher res movies to view and process, and more data from the world to be saved. I remember one colleague telling me in 1995 that if I got a 2 gig drive it would never be full.
  • by tchuladdiass ( 174342 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @04:34PM (#27678743) Homepage

    But Windows won't run on the next generation of netbook computers (the ARM-based ones, such as what Freescale/Pegatron is comming out with). Unless you count WinCE. But Linux will run the same apps as always, since everything can be (and has been) ported.

    Of course, this hinges on the assumption that ARM-based netbooks will take off, and I think they will. For one thing, they get much better battery life than you can get out of an x86 (even though Atom is low powered, you still have the thirsty chipset). And the prices are better than most of the x86 netbooks ($100 to $200).

  • by orev ( 71566 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @04:37PM (#27678783)

    Microsoft knew this a long time ago. That's why they are where they are today... everywhere. You don't need something that's perfect and awesome, you just need something good enough so people can get by. The cost savings you get by not putting tons of effort into perfection can be passed on to consumers, who almost always buy on price alone.

  • Re:meh (Score:4, Interesting)

    by grocer ( 718489 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @04:44PM (#27678883)
    Good enough has changed because Linux keeps up with the Windows upgrade cycle...I attempted to dust off a Pentium II 300 with 448mb RAM, 40 gig hard drive, CD-ROM, DVD/CD-RW, ESS Mastro II PCI sound card, and an Nvidia TNT2 (32 mb). To a get a mostly usable system (partially attributable to broken ACPI), I went from Ubuntu 8.04 to 8.10 to XUbuntu 8.10 before ultimately making a reasonable net appliance with FreeBSD-7.1 & XFce4...that lasted about two weeks until I got a DFI AK76-SN with an Athlon XP 1800+, 512mb RAM, and an Nvidia Ti4200 (128mb) from my brother because I was bitching about not being able to get a stable system from ancient hardware...granted I moved from circa '97-'98 hardware to probably about '00-'01 but what a difference 3 years makes when the current kernel has been basically synced to the MS upgrade cycle because that's what's been driving hardware development...I now have Ubuntu 8.04 running on a completely usable system, no difference from the XP Pro box upstairs in terms of functionality.
  • by levell ( 538346 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @04:45PM (#27678899) Homepage

    Not all Linux software is OSS. If Flash (for example) wasn't available to ARM, I think it would make them less attractive - my wife spends a lot of time watching the BBC iPlayer on our Asus EEE.

    This article [] claims the ARM version of Flash will be out in May. I hope it is. I like our EEE but an 8hour battery life for the price they are talking about would be enough to make me buy one.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @05:11PM (#27679247) Journal
    Your post is true; but I don't think that it actually contradicts TFA's assertion.

    Apple is, in fact, a significant beneficiary of "good enough". They make mostly laptops, which always have price/performance and worse absolute performance than do desktops. Nobody much cares; because laptops are more convenient, and they are fast enough for the job(even within the laptop market, Apple doesn't bother with any dual HDD offerings, or SLI setups, because the lower spec stuff is good enough). On the desktop side, all of Apple's consumer offerings are all-in-ones with extremely limited expandability. Nobody(except gamers) much cares; because the stuff built in is good enough, and PCI blanking plates are ugly.

    Having a manufacturer selling limited-performance hardware, with minimal expansion capacity, distinguished by industrial design and software, rather than performance, and doing quite well is exactly what "good enough" looks like.

    That doesn't mean that Apple is the only part of "good enough" el-cheapo walmart desktops and netbooks are also a (larger in marketshare terms) part; but Apple is hardly in opposition to "good enough".
  • by jmorris42 ( 1458 ) * <> on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @05:39PM (#27679705)

    > ..sales of Windows based netbooks seem to be much higher than for Linux.

    True... now. But look at the factors Microsoft had to deal with to make that happen.

    1. They had to 'encourage' the vendors to go upscale and forget about the low end. Of course most didn't need much encouraging anyway since this whole $200 and falling netbook idea scared the willies out of most of em. But while computer companies fear the low margins pricing that low will entail the consumer electronics people see an opportunity.

    2. They had to lower the OEM price and keep lowering it. Reports now indicate they are selling XP Home licenses for $15 each. Windows 7 Starter won't be nearly as attractive to customers as XP Home currently is so Microsoft is soon going to have to make a decision as to which choice hurts least. a) keep XP home available, b) price Windows 7 Home cheap enough to compete in the netbook space or c) watch Linux share start rising again as customers reject 7 Starter Edition. So even if they 'win' they could lose if they cut their earnings bad enough the shareholders come at em with pitchforks. Remember, MSFT has been a bad stock to own since the .bomb went off but at least up to now they have had cash flow.

    And then there is ARM. It is like the Terminator. It is out there, it is coming and it won't stop. Windows doesn't run on ARM. WinCE isn't going to compete, anything that isn't Windows is at the same disadvantage as Linux and WinCE isn't Windows. It also isn't a complete enough solution to compete with Linux with a real browser and office suite.

    Porting Windows to ARM would be as pointless as their previous ports to PPC, MIPS, Alpha, Itanium, etc. If the ISV community doesn't port the whole effort is wasted and they can only be stirred into halfhearted support for x86_64. Ask yourself this: If Intuit hasn't bothered porting Quickbooks to Linux with people begging them for over a decade how long will it take them to port to Windows/ARM? Especially since I don't think the Windows toolchain is setup to cross compile and there aren't exactly a lot of ARM (native) developer workstations available to buy even if an ISV were so inclined.

  • Re:Smart enough... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tknd ( 979052 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @05:50PM (#27679861)

    It's simple to install. Adding applications is easy. Updating is easy. Seriously, what's not to like

    It doesn't run photoshop and itunes.

    Before you harp "run wine or gimp" normal people don't know about wine, gimp, or why they should use it. They want to attach their iphone to their computer like Steve Jobs says they can with a Mac or Windows box. They want to run photoshop because it is already what they know. They don't want to be told a random piece of software won't run because it's not open source or a random device won't work because the manufacturer didn't open their specs. They don't care about FSF's definition of "free" or even "free as in beer" since they'll gladly throw cash at expensive gadgets and software sold by Apple, MS, and Adobe. It is the same reason why you don't see people changing their own oil filters on their cars. They don't care. They'll gladly pay a mechanic to do the job and fix the problem for them even if the markup is 200% or 400%. Software is no different.

  • by DragonWriter ( 970822 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @05:55PM (#27679935)

    Parkinson's law is "Work expands to fill all available time". It applies to processing power too. What's "good enough" today won't be "good enough" tommorrow, because someone will invent some CPU-sucking memory-hogging disk-flogging killer app that everybody will want to have.

    Sure, but over time the percentage of computers that are sold new, and in general use, that are significantly below the "top of the line" increases -- and that's not just a prediction of the future, but I think something that is true of the trend over time we've already seen. As networks become more pervasive, I would expect to accelerate that trend, because what you can use your computer to do becomes increasingly distinct from what your computer can do on its own.

  • by number6x ( 626555 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @06:01PM (#27680019)

    With the debut of Windows 3.1 'good enough' became the accepted norm in computing.

    You could pay more for a NeXT workstation, a Sun workstation, or even a Mac. However Windows 3.1 was 'good enough'. Most people didn't need networking support built in, or the compilers or software that was available for the other platforms.

    You could have gone all multimedia with a fancy Amiga that did incredible sound and graphics, but 16 colors and trading files via floppy was 'good enough' for the majority of people. You could add hardware and software to Windows 3.1 computers if you really had a need to network them. The computers Windows ran on were capable of displaying better graphics (games that booted to DOS showed this), but Windows 3.1 was 'good enough'.

    Windows 3.1 really did make computers easier to use. Macs, Amigas and NeXT did a 'better' job of making computers easier for people, but Windows 3.1 did a 'good enough' job at making things easier. At about US$2,400.00, a mid range computer with Win 3.1 on it was a lot cheaper than the competition. It was 'good enough' and cheaper.

    The history of economics shows that 'good enough' and cheap wins.

    Think of the 'best' hamburger that you ever ate...

    Did you think of a plain old McDonald's hamburger? Probably not. In any scale of human measure (taste, smell, satisfaction) McDonald's hamburgers rarely rank as 'best'. But measured in market share the McDonald's hamburger is the best.

    Ford's Model T was not as fast or as fancy or as comfortable or as good in quality as the hand crafted automobiles it competed with. But thanks to mass production and economies of scale it was cheaper and it was 'good enough'. Ford and other mass produced vehicles dominated the market. There are still purpose built vehicles, but they are a small specialty segment of the market.

    'Good enough' and cheap is always the 'best' when you consider things from a market dominance point of view. What a human thinks is 'best' and what the market thinks is 'best' are not the same thing.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @06:03PM (#27680041)

    Once XP isn't supported and security flaws continue to be discovered, staying on XP will be unappealing.

    If people give a rat's ass about security flaws, why are they using Windows in the first place?

  • The most memorable lines from Pirates of Silicon Valley...

    - We're better than you are! We have better stuff.
    - You don't get it, Steve. That doesn't matter!

  • Re:Smart enough... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Urza9814 ( 883915 ) on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @06:18PM (#27680189)

    I know exactly what you mean. I had to boot into Vista the other day to update my iPod, and it was a mess. I mean, it's pretty much a brand new install, and I've done as much as possible to reduce running services and apps, but can barely handle a single browser on this computer. And it's so damn unresponsive. Combine that with the horror than is iTunes (It just starts doing all kinds of crap that I don't want it to do, and it slows my computer to such a crawl that it takes ten minutes get my mouse to the cancel button) and what should have taken five minutes ended up taking over an hour.

    After that experience I have truly realized why I love Linux. I love it because, even on my $500 Dell Vostro, I can run a browser with 15 tabs open, and leave it running for weeks at a time (an old, leaky firefox even!)...while running KDevelop and Pidgin and Amarok and Konsole and Epiphany (yes, I run two browsers sometimes) and kate and whatever else I need. And nothing slows down. I love it because I can squeeze almost 6 hours of life out of a battery than can barely hit 3 on Vista. I love it because I can do 'sh' and punch in a password rather than typing in some huge string, typing in a username and password, selecting a drive and hitting next 6 times...but if I want GUI tools, they're right there too. I love it because all of my apps run. All of them. From Fantasy General and Zone Raiders (old DOS games) to World of Warcraft and Command and Conquer: Tiberium Wars. Basically, I love it because it does what I want. Everything I want. But _only_ what I want.

  • by djlowe ( 41723 ) * on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @06:27PM (#27680285)

    I'm all for cutting costs using an open source OS, but the problem with increasingly cheaper hardware is staying power.

    I think you're missing the point, which I take to be this: We've reached the point with regards to hardware, that we *already* have "staying power", except in all but the highest-end applications.

    Even now, what you'd most likely deem "cheap" hardware is more than capable of running the most common applications well, and the OS' themselves are sufficiently reliable that one of the compelling reasons to upgrade, better reliability from a new OS (as Microsoft has always promised, but failed to deliver [1]), has passed.

    Yeah it might be all you need, but how long is it going to be around for.

    Well, if it's all you need, then by definition it will around until that is no longer the case. IMHO, *that* is as it should be: Use it until it 1) fails or 2) No longer does what you need/wish it to do [2]. And that's the point, I think, and one of the reasons why Netbooks are so popular now: They do what they do, regardless of hardware and OS, well enough for those that use them, at an affordable price.

    Of course the trade off is, is it cheaper to get short term cheap computers, or long term expensive computers.

    But, that's no longer really the case, you see. To coin a phrase: We've reached the age of "utility computing", where a computer's usefulness is no longer measured so much by it's raw specs and OS revision, but rather, how suited it is to the task(s) for which its user needs it.

    This isn't a bad thing, in my estimation, and in the long run, addresses your final point:

    And, to top it all off, if we do switch to a disposable computing model will we having recycling programs in place to make sure we reuse the rare and valuable parts, and keep the really toxic parts out of landfills?

    While computers may well be "disposable", in some sense, they are also longer-lived in general now, which offsets that to a large degree [3], and recycling programs are already in place for them once they are no longer useful to their owners: There's sometimes a family member that can use it, or charities to which one can donate such, and other recycling programs at local and national levels (at least here in the US: After not being able to find a home for the various old computers, monitors and peripherals I've accumulated over the years, I save them and take them to my county's local drop-off point - they advertise such at least once per year now).

    In addition, all of the companies for which I've done service this past decade or so also have recycling programs in place now. Old hardware is replaced on a planned basis: They amortize it from an accounting perspective, then replace it once it is out of warranty - typically 3 years. After that, some systems become "beater"/test platforms for their hardware/software engineers (which saves them the money to have to purchase such, and also allows them to test on older hardware), or is donated to local charities (giving them a tax write-off), or is taken away by a recycling company (which gives them PR value as being environmentally conscious). And, this isn't stated cynically, mind you.

    I, for one, welcome such, and hope that it will (re)create an era of software efficiency and reliability: Computers are/should be tools, after all - maybe "slowing down" ever-increasing hardware and software upgrades will bring that back into focus.



    [1] And, certainly, Microsoft is by no means alone in this. Apple has been known to release OS upgrades from time to time that make older Apple hardware "obsolete", and let's face it, the most popular of current Linux distributions also increasingly fall into this category as well. Certainly, one can say that this is "the price of progress" - but let's at least be honest about it, and what it enta

  • Re:Smart enough... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SanityInAnarchy ( 655584 ) <> on Wednesday April 22, 2009 @09:06PM (#27681779) Journal

    Before you harp "run wine or gimp" normal people don't know about wine, gimp, or why they should use it. They want to attach their iphone to their computer like Steve Jobs says they can with a Mac or Windows box.

    Actually, I'd suggest that if they actually need Photoshop, they should use it. If not, they should use Gimp. And I'd suggest Amarok, but that's another matter...

    What, exactly, do you suggest?

    They don't care about FSF's definition of "free" or even "free as in beer" since they'll gladly throw cash at expensive gadgets and software sold by Apple, MS, and Adobe.

    No, but they ma start to care when they actually want something Linux does well, or some software on Linux, and Windows won't do it.

    This began with Firefox. At first it was a vocal minority, and there wasn't much change -- most websites would still be designed for IE, and many of them would look terrible in Firefox. And, as you predicted, people blamed Firefox. (Well, Mozilla at first, and then Firefox.)

    The first thing that Firefox did right was the extension concept. In fact, Firefox was born out of the idea that Mozilla had a solid foundation, but too much crap built-in that could be done as an extension.

    The real catalyst came with just a few of those extensions. Firebug made Firefox possibly the best browser to develop on -- very quickly, web developers started to prefer Firebug, and dislike Internet Explorer. Of course, to this day, few sites will actually be so bold as to refuse supporting IE, but similarly, few sites will not work on Firefox.

    That was really a prerequisite to getting most users to even consider Firefox. Users don't like to even think about the browser, so asking them to run two -- Firefox for most things, and IE for that one last site -- is lunacy.

    The other important extensions are Greasemonkey and the various blockers -- adblock, flashblock, noscript, etc. These are important in that they give the user a reason to love Firefox -- who wants to go back to the web before Adblock? These are features IE doesn't have, because there's no incentive -- why would Microsoft sabotage their own ads?

    It's worth noting: Firefox didn't have to add ActiveX support. (It's been added, but it's buggy enough that people use IE anyway.) There are still sites Firefox cannot be used for. Yet Firefox has forced IE back below 80% marketshare.

    I see no reason Linux can't do the same thing. It will take longer, but it is possible. But constructive criticism will be useful here, because it's unlikely Linux will ever just run Photoshop, at least until Linux gains sufficient marketshare that Adobe targets it. (Not that this stopped them from porting the Flash player or Acrobat Reader...)

    So, what does Linux do well now, or what is it that Windows and OS X really suck at that Linux could do?

  • Re:meh (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Just Some Guy ( 3352 ) <> on Thursday April 23, 2009 @10:49AM (#27687407) Homepage Journal

    Yes, but have they gone up recently?

    Yes. In my house, the defining point was our purchase of a Flip video camera. It's a little $150 flash-based unit meant for people like us who want grandma to see movies of the kids with minimal hassle. You shoot your video, plug it into a Mac or PC's USB port, double-click the runnable software that's stored on the camera itself, and watch your movies. If you want to upload them to YouTube, select the desired clips and click the "upload" button - the software handles the rest.

    It's a slick little camera and we love it, but the transcoding takes ages on my wife's older iMac. She's the furthest thing from a power user, but she gets impatient waiting for the process to finish so she can call her mom to let her know the movies are online. I have a suspicion that we'll be upgrading her computer soon so that she can use our camera more easily.

    I think this will be the next CPU-eating activity. Almost every portable electronic device seems to have a video camera these days, and people are going to want to start actually using them.

  • Re:meh (Score:3, Interesting)

    by roc97007 ( 608802 ) on Thursday April 23, 2009 @01:31PM (#27690379) Journal

    How old is "older"? Daughter is still happy with her dual 800 G4 from 2001. She's a heavy Photoshop user, and response on her elderly G4 is better than her more recent Dell (2 Ghz Pentium 4, circa 2004). There's a brisk business out there in non-current Macs -- you can probably offer her a substantial upgrade for a paltry sum without even stepping in a Mac store.

    I do video editing at home, (my video camera is a little higher end than a Flip) and in 2008 I bought an AMD Athlon 64 3200+ (I think it was $26) made in 2003, to replace the Sempron in my very elderly pre-X2 motherboard. The Athlon is still good enough for rendering movies, doing a half hour of video in about 45 minutes. Sure, I could probably do it in 20 minutes with a faster machine, but then I'd have to swap out the motherboard and that's more work than I feel like doing. And I'm a geek.

    A friend of mine has a G5 with dual 1.8 processors. He pines for a new Intel-based Mac. He wants one because it's shiny and new and so much faster... I keep asking him "In what way is the G5 inadequate? What do you do, or do you plan to do, that the G5 doesn't do well?" He can't come up with a single example. He does heavy video manipulation and has some large disks attached to the machine. When pressed, he'll admit that the G5 performance is adequate for what he does. His computer was made in 2003.

    What he ended up doing is buying a new monitor (which he really did need) and keyboard. Now, as long as you don't look under the table, his Mac looks like it just came from the showroom. He's now experimenting with SATA adapters so he can put larger, faster disks in it.

    Yes, yes, I know, Leopard (released in 2007) will be the last OS for the Power-based macs. But Leopard is current. There's no practical reason to spend money on a new machine.

    I recently bought a new laptop for my wife. Her old Toshiba was starting to have problems -- the battery would no longer hold a charge, the pointer was starting to go south, a couple other things. I checked on the cost of parts, and the total was right around $350. (Mostly the battery.) I bought her the lowest-end laptop I could find for about $380 and threw the old one away. The new one has four times the memory and eight times the CPU of her old laptop, way way WAY overkill for anything she's likely to do. (But it saved me a lot of work.) It's also the only Vista machine in the house. This, I submit, is one of the only realistic reasons for average users to replace their machine these days -- when the cost of repair is greater than the cost of replacement.

    Mind you, I don't want to discourage you from going out and buying a ultra-cool stylish new Mac. But I think it's important to recognize *why* you're buying it.

"Call immediately. Time is running out. We both need to do something monstrous before we die." -- Message from Ralph Steadman to Hunter Thompson