(This is not commentary on OLPC - go here to start that thread, which continues to December 2006)
I recently visited the MacWorld exposition and found myself making the familiar trudge through the aisles, glancing left and right while attempting to absorb and judge what I was seeing. I've done this many times before and it always seemed that my experience of hell would be of walking through an endless trade show.
Of course, I've seen worse (the late un-lamented Comdex a few years before its demise was a warren of tiny booths all showing the same bits of junk that were of no use to me). I took in the gigantic presentation by Apple of their iPhone and came away convinced that Steve Jobs had pushed through a most impressive piece of human interface programming, though all of an evolutionary and not revolutionary aspect.
Fortunately, I found myself in line buying an overpriced sandwich immediately behind a good friend of mine, and we sat and talked as we ate (there were many more opportunities to sit at MacWorld than at other trade shows). He directed me to the back hall where small companies had tiny stands with new products, or products that were almost ready.
There I ran into something very interesting. A tiny new company named Unicon was showing their tiny devices (about half the thickness of a deck of playing cards, with about the same profile) that were built to function as media handling devices, for want of a better word. Each had a small quarter-VGA (320 x 240) color LCD screen with a Linux (2.6) computer built onto the rear of the display using flex circuit technology. The design had two USB 2.0 ports and one USB 2.0 "mini OTG port for PC connection" - OTG standing for "On The Go" and referring to a dual-mode (A or B) dynamically configurable USB port allowing it to connect to anything except another OTG peripheral (which would have trouble deciding which protocol to assume).
They have a touch screen on the display and an IR port as well as a SD/MS/XD card reader slot. They're apparently working on a WiFi wireless version. Best of all, they have a software developement system available and are quite interested in selling small quantities of devices.
The flexibility of this device became apparent today when an acquaintance emailed me with a requirement for a portable, wireless ddevice capable of 3D stereoscopic display of data. His big problem, as he saw it, was to find a small portable PC (like OQO) with a dual display capability.
But at the Unicon booth an engineer had showed me the construction of their device and talked about using it as a component with which to build larger systems. That's it! Just use two of them, each feeding its own image to the stereoscopic head-mount and cross-connected to keep the image processing synchronized! Two eyes, two processors - sorry about that, Dr. Von Neumann! The hardware is so cheap now that the concept of "a waste of silicon" hardly applies, and Johnny (Von N)'s innovation of self-modifying code carefully squeezed into a single-processor computer has little relevance.
I'm an old-time hardware designer, dating back to 1970 in my digital work (and earler for analog), and I still harbor a sense that no one is using the hardware as intensely and efficiently as they might, and that this is somehow reprehensible. But when one looks at the contortions of software necessary to achieve such "efficiency" and the cost in terms of time and effort required to create such software, one has to re-evaluate one's design esthetics.
So maybe I just got a little younger in my thinking. I hope so. Maybe I'll get a chance to implement my friend's desired system in a software-conservative (and thus, "efficient", and hopefully elegant) way. We'll see - in the meantime I'm going to visit Unicom and learn as much as I can about this new component.