December 6th, 2015

Hard Stare

Electric cars & desktop Linux: eternal niche players, never going to take over? [tech blog post]

Both are niche today. Conceded, yes, but… and it’s a big “but”…

It depends on 2 things: how you look at it, & possible changes in circumstances.

Linux *on the desktop* is niche, sure. But that’s because of the kind of desktop/laptop usage roles techies see.

In other niches:

The URL explains the main story: 51% of American classroom computers are Chromebooks now. That’s a lot, and that’s 100% Linux.

And it’s happened quite quickly (in under 3y), without noise or fuss, without anyone paying a lot of attention. That’s how these changes often happen: under the radar, unnoticeably until suddenly you wake up & it’s all different.

In servers, it utterly dominates. On pocket smart devices, it utterly dominates.

But look at conventional adults’ desktops and laptops, no, it’s nowhere, it’s niche.

So, for now, on the road as private vehicles, e-cars are a small niche, yes.

But, in some role we’re not thinking about — public transport, or taxis, or something other than private cars — they might quietly gain the edge and take over without us noticing, as Chromebooks are doing in some niches.

The result, of course, is that they’re suddenly “legitimised” — there’s widespread knowledge, support, tooling, whatever and suddenly changes in some other niche mean that they’re a lot more viable for private cars.

For years, I ran the fastest computer I could afford. Often that was for very little money, because in the UK I was poor for a long time. I built and fixed and bodged. My last box was a honking big quad-core with 8GB of RAM (from Freecycle) with a dual-head 3D card (a friend’s cast-off) and lots of extras.

Then I sold, gave or threw away or boxed up most of my stuff, came over here, and had money but less space and less need to bodge. So I bought a friend’s old Mac mini. I’m typing on it now, on a 25y old Apple keyboard via a converter.

It’s tiny, silent except when running video or doing SETI, and being a Mac takes no setup or maintenance. So much less work than my Hackintosh was.

Things change, and suddenly an inconceivable solution is the sensible or obvious one. I don’t game much — very occasional bit of Portal - so I don’t need a GPU. I don’t need massive speed so a Core i5 is plenty. I don’t need removable media any more, or upgradability, or expandability.

Currently, people buy cars like my monster Hackintosh: used, cheap, but big, spacious, powerful, with lots of space in ‘em, equally capable of going to the shops or taking them to the other end of the country — or a few countries away. Why? Well that’s because most cars are just like that. It’s normal. It doesn’t cost anything significant.

But in PCs, that’s going away. People seem to like laptops and NUCs and net-tops and Chromebooks and so on: tiny, no expansion slots, often no optical media, not even ExpressCard slots or the like any more — which were standard a decade or 2 ago. With fast external serial buses, we don’t need them any more.

Big bulky PCs are being replaced by small, quiet, almost-unexpandable ones. Apple is as ever ahead of the trade: it doesn’t offer any machines with expansion slots at all any more. You get notebooks, iMacs, Mac minis or the slotless built-around-its-cooling PowerMac, incapable of even housing a spinning hard disk.

Why? When they’re this bloody fast anyway, only hobbyist dabblers change CPUs or GPUs. Everyone else uses it ’till it dies then replaces it.

Cars may well follow. Most only do urban cycle motoring: work, shops, occasional trip to the seaside or something. Contemporary electric cars do that fine and they’re vastly cheaper to run. And many don’t need ‘em daily so use car clubs such as Zipcar etc.

Perhaps the occasional longer trips will be taken up by some kind of cheap rentals, or pooling, or something unforeseen.

But it’s a profound error of thinking to write them off as being not ready yet, or lacking infrastructure, or not viable. They are, right now, and they are creeping in.

We are not so very far from the decline and fall of Windows and the PC. It might not happen, but with Mac OS X and Chromebooks and smarter tablets and convertibles and so on, the enemies are closing in. Not at the gate yet, but camped all around.

Electric vehicles aren’t quite there yet but they’re closer than the comments in this thread — entirely typically for the CIX community — seem to think.