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Thursday, October 24, 2002

BobF at 1:54 PM [url]:

From Hotrods to PCs

Wandering through a (Micro-Center) computer store recently I noticed a cable gun that shoots out a plastic dart that pulls a line which I can use to pull a network cable across an open space. It's sort of like fishing rod and even has a reel for pulling in the line. This kind of device used to be only for specialists through commercial dealers but is now a retail product. Just as computer software and email were once confined to a small community of enthusiasts, the PC is a building block used by a growing community.

Hotrodders used to rebuild cars to make them faster or to make them look exotic. Today's gamers may be the equivalent of the hotrodders but they are not alone. With all the attention focused on Microsoft vs Dell or Microsoft vs Apple or .Net vs Java it's easy to forget the large market of what are sometimes called white box PCs that are assembled out of building blocks like motherboards, PCI cards, power supplies and chasses. Many of the boxes are assembled by local companies who can cater to the needs of their clients.

Like many I prefer to just buy the parts and put together my own systems rather than decide among the compromises offered by the large manufacturers (though they too do more assembly than basic manufacturing). It is becoming even easier now that I can put disk drives outside of the box on a USB2 or Firewire cable. With gigabit Ethernet falling in price it will become even easier to mix and match both parts of systems and treat computers themselves as components. I already put all of my printers on my home network and also connect to serial devices via the network.

I think of gamers who try to push the performance of their computers to the limit as being most like the spirit of the hotrodders. Making the system go fast is not enough. Just like hotrodders added racing strips and other adornments you can now buy PCs with plastic side and even neon lights to make the interior glow and match the colors of the case and peripherals. While many people buy a raspberry Macintosh for the color, the color is still secondary to the choice of the system.

I benefit from the gamers and others who have created a retail marketplace for the building blocks so I can go to the store and buy something as exotic as a glowing PC or fishing rod for cable runners.

Once you discover how to assemble your own computer out of simple parts you can start assembling other systems out of PCs. It's hard not to see that a television is simply a display with a tuner. The PC already has a far better displays and tuners. The main difference is that the TV display is lower resolution and relies on the phosphor for smoothing out the signal but today's video boards do the same thing far better using signal processing chips. The technology used to build notebook PCs can be used to build small machines that can sit in the living room and you can even add a second screen to give a control surface next to you instead of having to do everything on one screen.

Why stop at entertainment systems? We can replace the fixed analog control systems in our house with very inexpensive networked devices and then use software to redefine them as we wish.

And why not rethink cars or be more ambitious and rethink the entire aviation industry. In fact, that's what Vern Raburn is doing at Eclipse Aviation.

The hotrodders got a taste of power in their ability to build their own cars. Ham Radio operators built their own systems instead of just being passive listeners. But after building their cars there was little to do with them but race them and hams found that the only topic they had in common was radio.

Today's PC (and Internet) hackers follow in this tradition but with a big difference. We are relearning how to make devices (and services) that others can use. The Web is just one minor example.

For more, see the Archive.

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