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.comment: The Christmas List, or Wantin' Ain't Gettin'

Ho ho ho

  • December 6, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell
Here we are again, in that magical season of peace on earth and good will toward men (unless aforementioned men have the store's last Play Station/2, in which case aggravated assault isn't out of the question, is it?).

In keeping with the spirit of raging selfishness beneath what is all too often a veneer of hypocrisy as authentic as woodgrain shelf paper, I herewith proffer my Christmas wish list. It is short, but this is counterbalanced by the fact that most of what it contains doesn't exist. But it should, so my gift to the world at large is identification of these needs so that someone can fill them.

Item One: The Machine
The other day I took out and played with my old but still perfectly functioning Atari Portfolio. The Portfolio is (and if you don't have one, was, because they haven't been sold for about a decade) a diskless PC about the size of a VHS cassette, with the now familiar clamshell case configuration. Its tiny LCD screen is text only; its applications--a dinky word processor, spreadsheet, addressbook, phone dialer, and terminal program (even though it had no modem)--are burned into ROM. Storage was your choice of RAM or little battery-powered RAM cards that cost an enormous amount of money for what they did. (The battery in my 64k card, by the way, is still good.) The Portfolio's 8086 processor was powerful enough to run the applications, and the machine would run for about three weeks on a set of three AA batteries. It had a terrible little sub-chicklet keyboard made a little less awful by a keyclick sound that would confirm that a character had been entered. You could hook it up to a printer or do a parallel-port transfer to a bigger machine via a strange attachment that increased its size by about half, but that enabled me to do actual useful work with it.

A few years ago, I briefly owned--I returned it--a Toshiba Libretto, which had a Pentium-120, 64 megs of memory, a gig or so of drive space, and a nifty, backlit, color LCD screen. It, too, was about the size of a VHS cassette. It, too, had a terrible keyboard. Its PCMCIA floppy drive was unsupported by any operating system other than the one favored in Redmond, Washington.

Last summer I played a little with a Sony Picture Book, a machine bigger than the other two but smaller than just about anything else. The keyboard is big enough to be useful--if it were any smaller, it wouldn't be--and the backlit color LCD has some kind of weird geometry that made me think that my weekend calculating a modeline for my 1024x600 Toshiba Portege was probably a picnic by comparison. The Picture Book has a little digital webcam thing built in (which, so far as I can tell, will not work with Linux), and whether its built-in modem is or is not a crappola winmodem is apparently the luck of the draw--some have 'em and some don't.

Also current at that time were several small, light, keyboard-equipped portables with no hard drives and with Windows Even Liter or whatever they call it burned into ROM.

Hence the machine that I think we'd all get one of if only they were made: A little dedicated Linux machine with a keyboard, some kind of built-in pointing device (preferably not a touchpad or, worse, touchscreen) that is easily upgradeable and that costs about $500.

It wouldn't be that difficult. You'd need a big hunk of ROM, a decent amount of RAM, ports, and little else under the hood. Many of us have burned a new BIOS. It's not beyond the reach of anybody outside of Palm Beach County. Linux, which is to say the kernel and the little dab of modules it would need, would be downloadable as a piece. A drastically pared-down X Window System would be included. A parallel, serial, USB, or NIC connection would allow users to build such userspace applications as they cared to run, and burn them into ROM, too. In fact, everything except /home would be burned in; /home would likely be in RAM. A deluxe version might even employ one of those matchbox-sized 1-gig hard drives that IBM has been hawking, and some sort of provision for wirelessness, at least until that fad has happily passed into oblivion. The chip could be something new--hello, Transmeta!--or something cool like the already-existing MachZ chip from ZF Linux Devices, which provides much of what I've described.

This machine would need a usably sized keyboard with a decent click to it. Modem and NIC could both be put on the system board and share an RJ-45 connector. I suppose that there should be a PCMCIA slot. The screen probably should be unlit monochrome--I'm thinking of battery life here. A nice, rechargeable battery should be easily removable and interchangeable with a AA battery holder, included. (Such a gadget ought to be included with every portable computer.)

The whole thing would weigh under three pounds, be maybe seven inches by 10 by an inch, and run just about forever on a charge or set of batteries.

Ponder it: this machine would be useful to me and thee, but because you could customize stuff and then burn it onto ROM, it would be very helpful to a variety of professions and businesses where custom forms, for instance, are the tools of the trade. It would be cheap enough that widespread deployment wouldn't represent a huge capital expenditure. And it would be sturdier than the relatively delicate portables we now lug around with us.

I'd be first in line to buy one. Somebody ought to make me this kind of machine.

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