Sunday, May 21, 2006

Dreaming; Your Network Desktop--and Community [updated]

Dreaming Dept.

Here's a Sunday think project..play with CosmoPod, a free, remote desktop with a batch of nifty programs installed. At heart it's a Linux remote desktop. As far as I can tell it consists of the remote desktop and apps, both located on a server, and a downloaded client to let you access "your" desktop. (KDE.news has a short interview with the devoloper that will fill you in on more details if you'd like them.) The downloaded client is a small cross-platform java app hooks you up to the online desktop regardless of your own computer's OS. Play with it a bit. Devote a little time to thinking about how you could use this to improve your life--and how a community could use the same technology to make itself a better place to live.

The technology behind all this is apparently not too exotic in the Linux world and the designer of this website looks to be cobbling together readily-available, for-free pieces to achieve the effect.

Whether it works well or poorly right now the question it raises is profound:

Do you really need to have your own computer?

Really--the ultimate in low-cost computing is having NO computer. Do you want to travel light-weight and are still trying to get you laptop bag under five pounds? How 'bout no pounds? Interested in bridging the digital divide? There's nothing like non-existent to beat even free. Really don't like viruses--and even worse being afraid of viruses--messing up your machine. If you don't have a machine it's not your problem. Hate having to upgrade your software just to keep on being able to exchange documents with those who upgraded last week? Let somebody else worry about ensuring interoperability.

Store everything on the web. Apps, docs, everything. Access it all from whatever is to hand.

Why not?

Well I, for one, can think of a number of reasons. But most of them have to do with how I live with technology--and I'm not a typical user, either. With that caveat, here's what I think would be really nifty: an environment where your basic apps and your important storage was both online and offline and kept synched up automatically. Different users could choose their own points on the continuum of use. Some wouldn't own their own machine and would use public ones or friend's machines to access their secure account. Their essential data and apps would reside online and, at some cost in convenience and accessibility they could have access to a complete computer environment for free or very close to that. Other users would work out sharing arrangements--with family or roommates typically--and store some material online and some off, depending on available connectivity and personal preference. Others still would use their online account mostly for backup and "emergency" use, keeping essential or 'active' docs backed up automatically. This class of user might only logon to use some "exotic" application that they don't use often and can't justify owning.

Such a setup could be marginally useful today--as CosmoPod seems to be. (Yes, everyone complains about the name.) To make the user-experience better you need raw speed, low-latency, storage capacity, and perhaps most importantly: ubiquity.

The speedier the connection the more you can do with it. A speed that would be enough for writing letters wouldn't be anything like good enough to drive photoshop manipulations to the local screen. Everything is better with more speed. Related to speed is "low latency" which leads to things that applications are consistently and smoothly responsive--not slow sometimes and fast others. That's best accomplished (IMHO) by simply having the server local so that data doesn't have to hop all over the web in fragments to get to you. You also would need a lot of local on-network storage for documents. Ubiquity is more subtle and harder to accomplish. The ideal network service would be available whenever and wherever the user was and on whatever device he or she was using. Cell phones, wireless laptops, PDA's, desktops, next generation iPod's--whatever the device a person ought to be able to get to and alter the material in their account. Unless it was always available, even if in constrained ways, people wouldn't be able to make the transition to trusting enough for most folks to change their behaviors. If something like this were available reliably enough I might quit my habit of carrying my laptop almost everywhere "just in case" I need it.

Long-time readers might be suspicious that I'm about to point out that Lafayette would be the ideal place to try this out. Such readers would be right.

With 1oo meg or faster insystem bandwidth every local user could have access to vastly beefed up version of the functionality of CosmoPod. With a wireless component integrated into the system the potential for making access truly ubiquitous in the city and available over the net from Breaux Bridge or Bangkok would be exciting. All the technical prerequisite are available or could easily be made available here.

But with the big portals like Yahoo or Google already drifting in this direction and with Web 2.o apps popping up all over its probably not all that apparent that it needs to be local. Frankly I'm not sure that it does need to be local. But I do suspect that it ought to be. It's easy to be generous locally. Lafayette have bandwidth to burn internally--the incremental costs in terms of infrastructure would be limited to funding the server farm that drives it. A local version could be integrated into LUS telecom services more broadly. Your voice mail, calendar, video recording schedule, email, and much more could be easily accessed from this desktop. Local neighborhoods, schools, and churches could have calendars. Local neighborhood watches, the police, and events like Festival International and could have alerts. You could subscribe to any calendar or set up any alert to notify you directly. Catastrophic public safety alerts could go out on all "channels."

The possibilities go on and on--and would do much enhance any community. The digital divide committee, way back when the fiber optic network was first being discussed, suggested a "super ISP" or portal that would leverage the speed and capacity of a locally owned fiber network to make computing inexpensive and to enhance the community. A few short years has made available technologies available that have transformed what was then vague and visionary into something that a determined cadre of tech types could snap together out of available parts. To repeat, the developer of CosmoPod appears to have done nothing more than bring together readily available parts, come up with a name and some graphics, and put ads down one side of the page in order to pay for it all.

The model that is emerging for such services when they are stand-alone commercial services is to pay for the free version with advertising and to make the more capable version/s available for a monthly fee. It remains to be seen whether this model will fly. But Lafayette need not be tied to the commercial model. The major portals like Yahoo and Google who are doing a version of this are not paying for them directly and there is no "super" version. These services are so cheap to deploy that the Portals are using them as loss leaders; as enhancements that build traffic. That's smart business and getting people to put their valued content into Google or Yahoo's mail or calendar program is arguably the smartest and cheapest way to build the value that is needed to keep folks coming around and making the companies money by their presence.

LUS could do a very similar thing to enhance the value of its upcoming product. Following Google it could offer a good, clean set of online apps and capacities. With its promised 100 megs of internal bandwidth to all users it has already moved past the biggest barrier to a robust setup: the differing speed of users and the very limited speed of some. By reducing the price people have to pay to get a full computing experience and by building a strong community-based ISP/Portal/Web Applications nexus that exploits its bandwidth advantage it could build a services strategy that its competitors simply could not match. Those services could be offered at an additional cost to LUS that would be trivial in comparison to the additional members the services would draw. Like any new entrant LUS will have to distinguish its product from the established ones and highlight its advantages. It's hard to think of anything more appropriate for a publicly-owned utility to do than to leverage its advantages to lower the costs of entry and to enhance the community in which it operates.

We're going to have something unique here. The key to its success it to take advantage of its unique capacities to build value for those who are once its owners and consumers: the citizens of Lafayette.

Update 12:10 5/22/06-- I followed my own advice and played with CosmoPod thing this evening. I'm impressed! It's a real desktop environment. You're able to load open office, email, browsing, datebooks, calendars, etc. --the whole range of productivity tools in very sophisticated forms. There's games and creative tools available as well. Anyone using this would have basic equity with folks using windows or mac office products and a buncha other "personal" type apps as well. (Cookbooks, photo organizers and the like.)

It's not a "cheap" or less capable version of a "real" computer. It is, instead, the real thing. Arguably, it's more capable than most folk's "default" computers that they use with the apps provided by the manufacturer.

And it is free--and could be free and even more capable if we'd do something similar locally.

It is the final link in the digital divide conumdrum--with hardware costs dropping like a rock and already into the commodity range for new machines a person could have the capacity to runs such a system off a fast local network for very little. And once in wouldn't have to update their local machine very often since all the real work would be done on the net. A second big cost is connectivity. That gets to be more than the machine costs very quickly. LUS as a public utility will take a big bite out of those ongoing connectivity costs--giving folks more for less. The last great barrier is the cost (and for many the hassle) of getting useful apps going and keeping them usefully updated. A remote desktop system like CosmoPod's could kill that cost as well.

The costs of real participation could be driven into the ground.

And should be.

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