Sunday, February 17, 2008


In my previous post I described a tangible interface that I made for Google Earth, using Arduino and Python. A couple of days after that, I had the chance to take my prototype in to school to try and get it running on one of the student's laptops.

I had pretty high hopes. She had a beautiful new machine. It had only taken me a few minutes to move the project from one of my Win XP computers to another. I had even burned a disk with installation files of all of the software I'd need. She turned on her computer and we waited. And waited. I remembered how disappointing it was the first time I tried Windows 1.0 on my DOS machine. We waited. I remembered how long it had taken for my Win 95 and Win 98 machines to boot. We waited. We made small talk. I asked her how long she'd had her computer (less than a year). I asked her if she liked it. She said plaintively, "I think I want a Mac." We waited some more.

Things went downhill from there. I spent about an hour and a half trying to install my software. Every few minutes, the screen would darken and I would get a security message. Occasionally, a window would open with a long list of processes that needed to be killed. I would then hunt them down one-by-one, try to figure out what they did, and stop them. Unfortunately, the process IDs weren't very useful because they don't appear uniformly in the different tabs of the default display of the task manager. Once in a while I would get an error message with no way to rectify the situation, other than to accept it. Eventually I got to a point where it seemed like I was going to damage something, so I spent another hour trying to undo my earlier actions. Up until a few days ago, I hadn't seen Vista, but had assumed that it couldn't be as bad as the "Hi, I'm a Mac--And I'm a PC" ads made it sound. I took a quick poll of the students and found that about a fifth of them have Macs, and the rest have new Vista machines. I decided to bring in a few old machines running XP to use for their exhibits this year.

I had a lot of time to think while I was sitting there. I have almost $200K to spend on computers for myself, my colleagues and students over the next few years. I had assumed that I'd be buying a few Linux machines for power users and Windows machines for the rest. I just can't see that happening now. I'm beginning to think that the non-Linux machines in our new computer labs might be more useful for everyone if they have an OS that is built on top of Unix.