Punkie, a Frankenputer Man

Wandering Thoughts on the Computer Industry Future

My friend Rogue turned me onto that term, "Frankenputer," about 7 years ago when she was working at CompUSA.  Simply defined, it means a computer your built out of parts.  The parts can be new or used.  There are a ton of advantages to this in my universe:
Of course, for your average Joe, this may be too complicated.  I don't think so, but I think many people look at the inside of their computer like some mysterious cave of mystical and unreadable symbols.  No way.  Parts are more modular than they have ever been.  But most people don't believe me.  But believe me, once you build your own, you may never want to go back.  Sometimes it's more expensive, because brand names usually are, but then again, you pay for quality.  But you can also get stuff used from friends or on Ebay or something.

When I started out in the "Wintel" environment, I got an old IBM 8088 XT with DOS 3.3 on a 20MB hard drive.  That was about 1990 or so.  If I wanted the computer to do something, well, by gum, I had to add it!  My first foray into opening up the box came when I had to put in an I/O serial card so I could hook up a modem.  Then to upgrade my 4.2 mhz chip to a screaming 8.8 mhz.  Then, because I was poor, I had to rely on buying a computer a part at a time.  Time has passed, and now I build computers for a living.  But it wasn't easy getting here.  There are a lot of trail-and-error kinds of things that I have learned that add to a mountain of experiences you can't get from taking an A+ certification class, for instance.

Where I work currently, I deal with both kinds of systems.  I have seen a lot of problems.  Most of them stem from Windows supposedly "knowing better" than me.  No, I wanted that modem on COM2, IRQ 3.  That's why I set the jumper pins on the card.  The mouse is on COM1.  But Windows tries to force it on COM3, IRQ 4, and then when dial out, my mouse stops working.  I fight Windows, and eventually either win or come to some sort of compromise.  Classes teach you what SHOULD happen, not always what does happen.

But the average Joe seems to want what we call a "turnkey" solution, because it's easy and has support when something goes wrong.  You get two boxes, plug stuff in, turn it on, and wala!  You have a computer.  This seems easy.  And for many people, it is.  Until something goes wrong.  And something WILL got wrong eventually.  Maybe not for a year, but suddenly one day, modem stops working.  Since you never installed it, you don't even know what may be wrong.  Luckily, you paid for technical support!  Oh no, the person on the other end is paid $10/hr to be as clueless as you! 


You know they rate call center techs?  Not on whether they fix problems or not, but CALL TIME.  They don't give a flying flip whether Bob the Tech fixed your problem, but how FAST the call went.  A lot of times, the call center isn't even owned by the computer company, it's "outsourced" (i.e., run by another company).  They sell those times, like, "We can get through 200 calls an hour!" to prospective companies.  You know, most of the time, these "techs" are trained for multiple companies.  The same tech who answers the phone for CompuHelp may also be the same guy who answers the 1-800 line on the back of shampoo bottles.  I know.  I used to program call centers.  They (hopefully) get a whisper in their ear just before your call to tell them how to answer the phone.  And these call centers are often placed in remote areas so they can save money on real estate (call centers take up a lot of space) and pay scale.  It costs a company far less to place a call center in the middle of Nowhere, Montana, where people willingly work for $10/hr.  But do you think these people are really technically inclined?  Nope!  The people that wanted to be computer science nerds went to college, moved to big cities, and get paid a TON of money to do what they do.  Those that are left behind get maybe 3 weeks of training, a big laminated notebook, a headset, and left to the sharks they call "customers."  Turnover in these places are high.  Management is terrible.  Your job depends on call time, and not correctness.  Apathy abounds, and people can only unite against the "common enemy," which is you, the customer.  After all, if it doesn't work, you'll call back, get some other tech, and that's not their problem anymore.  Those that really know their stuff get promoted out quickly or, more likely, move to a big city where they can make real money.  So those that are left behind are the bottom of the barrel.  I know.  Again, I used to program call centers, and while checking for line noise issues, I have heard a lot of really, really bad calls.

If someone asked me what kind of turnkey box to get a few years ago, I might have recommended a Gateway, Dell, or HP.  Now I am very wary of Dell and HP, and wouldn't wish a Gateway on my worst enemy.  The main reason is simple: in order to drive the cost of computers down, they now all get the cheapest parts.  No 3Com modem in a Dell, you might get some sort of Aztec 3850 56K made by some Korean fly-by-night firm that had a great demo of their recent product, but never tested it over time.  What could have been a great Creative Soundblaster is some "Soundblaster compatible" chip on the motherboard which may just stop working for no reason until you reboot.  Or may not work with your new game, because it was tested on a decent sound card, not your "Panatrex OptiMCI 2000 Soundblaster Compatible" chip.  Some hardware isn't really hardware at all, but half-hardware, half software.  Like some WinModems rely on software for data speed and compression, and if that software isn't working right, your 56K connection will only connect at 9600 bps, but will REPORT you are on 48000 bps.  Yeah, it must be AOL or AT&T that is slow and hanging me up all the time.  My wife, who is an IT specialist with a shipping company, spends more time on Dell Tech support than she does her own family because Dell has been using sloppy, crappy parts, notably modems, I/O ports, printer incompatibilities, and CDROMs.  But they are cheaper!  You get what you pay for.

Until recently, I would recommend Frankenputers over anything.  But a snag has developed.  WindowsXP.  Microsoft, in their insatiable greed, have figured out a way to serialize your machine, making it machine-specific.  What this means is that you cannot change the hardware in your machine more than 5 times, or XP will think it's being copied onto different machines and stop working.  So you have to buy a new OS for each new machine.  Now, never mind that pirated Windows made them what they are today, the most popular OS.  They know that, they used the same tactic for their browser to drive out Netscape.  And like drug dealers, they didn't mind the freebies, because it hooked the user.  Now you have to pay.  Plus, they have all kinds of info about you, what your computer is, does, and what software is on it.  Add to that, they don't have reliable ways of keeping that data secure.  They are so full of security holes, my company, a mega-huge computer company, refuses to use XP.  It used to be you had "site licenses" for companies as big as ours.  You know, you say, "Okay, we'll pay you a flat rate for the right to make infinite, uncounted copies of your software."  This is also why piracy was so high.  But now they said, "Nope.  No more.  Pay for every copy."  The inventory nightmare is beyond belief, we must have literally millions of computers.  We're not the only ones.  Small businesses are hurting bad, too.  And Microsoft does care if the product is crappy, you'll pay just to be compatible!  They also have cohorts with hardware vendors that would make your head spin.  Each new release of Windows is bigger, slower, and requires more hardware to run.  Plus, they have a stranglehold on hardware vendors.  If you want to be listed as "Windows compatible," you have to play by their rules.  Some of those rules is that you cannot support LINUX, their rival.

LINUX... an OS without limits

So... that leads to the LINUX debate.  LINUX, for those who don't know, is an open source, tremendously powerful, constantly improved and updated POSIX-compliant (UNIX-like) operating system.  It is infinitely superior to Windows in more ways than you could imagine. Even better, LINUX can run on a lot of older, slower systems.  Sometimes, you don't care if it takes 55 seconds to do a print job versus 20 seconds on a faster machine, especially if you only do a few print jobs a week.  Maybe you don't need lots of hard drive space if all the computer does is tell data where to go next, like a gateway.  You build your own LINUX Kernel specifying what you want the machine to do.  Why include built-in Zip drive support if you never use one?  Windows is so bloated because it is trying to anticipate everything, being user friendly and all.  But that's like learning every possible subject in college in case the topic comes up.  Like owning every copy of every book instead of using a library.  If you plan on being an accountant, why waste time, money, and brain space learning veterinary medicine and postimpressionist art history?  And best of all, it's 100%, totally free. 

But it's also hard as hell to learn, especially if you came from a Windows world.  Yeah, they have GUI (graphical user interfaces, you know, icons and folders, and stuff) like GNOME and KDE, but they don't exactly work the same way.  Like there is no "C:" drive, for instance.  You have stuff like /home/user directories, drwx permissions, relies more on typing cryptic commands (grep barr foo.txt) and well, it's not and happy and friendly as Windows.  And Windows REFUSES to work over LINUX.  We're lucky XP is POSIX compliant.  In fact, Microsoft considers UNIX environments to be the enemy, so they make their own rules.  Then LINUX programmers figure out a way to allow LINUX to work with Windows' new malarkey.  Samba (a network file-sharing tool) is a good example.  Samba is an awesome program, and in addition, will dumb itself down to talk to Windows, hell, even old DOS!  LINUX will always catch the ball, because it is made by hundreds of programmers, testers, and other people who do it not because someone made them, or they get paid ... but because they are dedicated to the open source ideal.  They want programs that work perfectly, for free, for anyone to use because they are essentially nice guys who want the computing world to be a better place.  Add to that they many more programmers will nitpick faults until the program has thought of every possible problem.  Built and tested by thousands of brainy people, not by a handful of corporate lackeys who are run by incompetent managers, worrying about office politics and profit margins.  LINUX is run by Darwin's theories of survival of the fittest.  That's why it's powerful.  But, programmers are building it for programmers, so it's still in the hands of the masters, and not the average Joe.  Not that they HATE the average Joe, far from it, but the problem is, LINUX is so complex, that it wants you to tell it what to do exactly.  Like to run a program in Windows, you double click a shortcut.  In LINUX, you have to have user executable rights to that file, and often have to type something like "./fooprogram" or "/usr/bin/fooprogram -start -nodump" and while you can create a shortcut (called an "alias"), you have to know what to type in the alias to get the program to run properly.  Think of it this way, imagine you want some toast:

Windows: Tell it to make toast. Generic 2 slices of toast comes out with slight butter spread.  Easy, but you always get the same toast.

LINUX: You have to be an authorized user to make the toast, and then authorized to use the toaster.  Then you may have to learn to set what kind of bread you want, how light or dark, how much butter, whether you want raisins or not, how many slices, and where you want the toast served, and whether to alert you when it's done, alert everyone, or just to automatically make toast at some time during the day. Or settle with the defaults, which for safety's sake, may only give you one slice of white, lightly toasted, unbuttered toast delivered to your kitchen table.  No table?  Error.  Toast on floor, or toast process canceled because you did not specify where to put it.  It may not even tell you that.  Many times, all you know is that you ran the toaster, got no toast, and one day, find a pile of toast behind the kitchen counter and wonder why it was sent there and wonder how to make it stop.  Oh, read the online manual.  Written by a programmer who really knows his stuff, but has the social skills of a math professor trying to teach advanced calculus to a toddler who just learned how to use a spoon.  Just type "./toaster -2wnrLd [norasins] /house/kitchen/table/top/plate4"  Of course, my dog can do that!  Not.

LINUX will give you the exact toast you want, but man, it's really complicated!  That's why it will be very hard to get average Joe User a whack at it.  But that's slowly changing.  Companies like Redhat and Mandrake found that even though LINUX is free, they can sell you support.  This is a step in the right direction.  Even though online help is available, they know most people want things fixed NOW, and don't have time to research it.  And they are getting smarter, making installation a breeze (like Windows), including help files, and more and more "Windows-like" features.  There are even programs that try and run Windows software (like WINE), or be close to Windows functionality, like Lindows, which recently got sued by Microsoft because it "sounds" like Windows.

Microsoft is dominant.  They know how to market and how to savage the competition, as long as its a business.  LINUX is not a business, but a concept of free information.  I can see the following happening:
Of course, this is speculation.  There are other problems to think about: I see a general conflict of Microsoft Marketing vs. Industry Need.  The outcome is not certain.  Look at Betamax.  Betamax tapes were a lot better than VHS tapes, but seen a Betamax player lately?  VHS had better marketing.  But unlike Betamax, if the mainstream goes with Microsoft, LINUX will not go away.  When Linus Torvalds passes on, his legacy will live forever.

I have two machines that run LINUX, and we are using more LINUX/Samba boxes at work because hey are so reliable, safe, and cheap.  And while we use Windows98/2000 on many machines to run the software we test, soon, my company may actually make LINUX-compatable software.

This leads me back to frankenputers, which I still bet my money on.  Once I get better with LINUX, I may only use Windows to run games.  And I can run the machines until they simply wear out their hard drives or burn a chip.  Less trash and I still save money.  And I become smarter.  I believe that we should always be smarter than the technology we depend on.
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