To Jon “maddog” Hall, the word “Luddite” isn’t something to be ashamed of but something to shoot for.
Hall, the executive director of Linux International, gave a presentation at the recent IT360 conference in downtown Toronto called “True Confessions of a Luddite.” Less a confessional than a manifesto, Hall spent 45 minutes outlining why Linux can not only make your home more efficient but also provide affordable, safe computing for millions of underprivileged kids.
Hall, now a consultant, has worked for Western Electric Corp., Aetna Life and Casualty, Bell Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, VA Linux Systems and SGI. He referred to himself as a Luddite “because I no longer have time to build a kernel and do things like that.”
A Linux evangelist, Hall can cite numerous reasons why proprietary software might be inferior to open source alternatives (cost, viral attacks, licensing issues), but his main concern is that today’s computing requires an increasing amount of power and resources.
There are currently about one billion PCs in the world. If the five billion people that don’t currently own a machine are able to purchase one, the current energy crisis would be exacerbated even further,” he said.
“If everyone turns their computer on all the time, we’ve got a problem.”
By switching to a Linux-based thin client, argued Hall, energy can be saved by running applications on machines that use only a fraction of power required by full desktops.
Hall admitted to owning a colossal desktop machine sucking up 550 watts, but turns it off when he’s not working. The bulk of the PC farm in his own home are small 10-watt Linux machines running various services like recording his TV programs or running Asterisk, an open source application he uses for Voice over IP.
He’s visited numerous schools across South America and taken old PCs that were destined for the landfill and converted them into thin clients running Linux. Kids can use them for school work and Internet access, he says, and teachers can make sure they’re secure by controlling them from a server.
The Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), as it’s being called, is a means to change not only the way homes, schools and businesses operate, but could help spread cheap, or even free, Internet access globally.
“I look at this project the same way as putting people on the moon,” he said. “There was lots of great technology that came from that.”
Thin clients can be used to set up a Wi-Fi mesh network, for example. Hall hopes to connect the work he’s doing with the One Laptop for Every Child Project to give those children a means to access the Web easily.
Six-year-olds don’t want Open Office (an open source alternative to Microsoft’s Office suite), he argued, but “to hear what a cow sounds like if they’ve never heard one before.” Internet access would allow them to do that.
Hall acknowledged Microsoft’s hegemony on the desktop, but said that Linux does present a viable alternative and some people, particularly those who try it before trying Windows, easier to use. It’s a matter of combating perceptions, he says, and finding new business models to help open source flourish further.
He said his parents are using Windows XP on their desktop, but he plans to switch them over to Ubuntu, a Linux distribution, on his next visit. It may take some getting used to, he said, but they’ll be better off in the long run.