Diversity in computing

The case for more choices in desktop computing in 2020.

The self and the other go-with. They go together. As with Yin and Yang, the dry and the wet side of the mountain, one cannot exist without the other.

Differences are important. We need to listen to more than just echoes, or watch mirror images of ourselves to stay sane and to be aware of our own identity.

In the 80’s and to some degree the 90’s the home computer revolution brought us myriads of computing platforms, each with their own slightly different variations on what home computing should be (or become).

These experiments evolved and non-viable ones died off or got replaced with new species. This could be considered the pre-agrarian period of home computing; there was a great variety to be foraged in the forest of early home computer manufacturers. Then some of the platforms became big and began displacing the small platforms. With the exception of a few outliers, in the effort of outcompeting the others, a monoculture of farmed, beige PCs became the norm. In nature, monocultures are vulnerable. We need biodiversity to survive illnesses and weaknesses. A fungus infestation is close to eradicating the current domestic banana. In a similar way, computing needs diversity of ideas.

Existing diversity

All is not lost. There are still remnants of the experiments from the 80’s and 90’s and later newcomers. Here are some of the possibilities.

  • Apple
    Apple is the longest living example of an alternative to the greige blandness of PC computing. However, in many ways, in order to become more mainstream and grab more business, Macintosh computers have become increasingly more and more similar to the PCs they are competing against.
  • Linux
    On the OS side, Linux, xBSD and other open source operating systems are a great stopgap for increased diversity on the software side. The proof is that the mainstream manufactures have increasingly embraced features from them. Windows now has a Linux subsystem able to run Linux applications and the Mac OS X kernel is built on top of the open source Mach microkernel including a large FreeBSD layer.
  • SBCs
    Single board computers such as the Raspberry PI come close to the ideal represented by this post. Although more geared towards HW tinkerers, you can buy a custom enclosure and a Raspberry PI 4 and use it as a standalone desktop computer.

What’s next?

So given these options. What is missing? More choice is always preferable, but the author would also like a turn-key solution. An alternative desktop hardware solution with its own desktop OS. The PCs are the distant descendants of the Intel 8088 powered IBM PC, and the Mac Pro has lineage all the way back to the venerable Mac (although it now mostly traces it OS lineage from the NeXT and hardware to a big extent the Intel PCs.)

What if we lived in an alternate reality where systems such as the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, and even the Acorn RISC PC, survived to the modern day. (One could argue that the RISC PC with its ARM processor gave way to the multitude of mobile phones running on modern ARM processors.)

For the ST, once a popular computer with musicians, how would its 2020 descendant look like?

How would such a machine look like? Should we go back to the combined computer/keyboard wedge shape? Or should one allow the users to select their own keyboard and mice? Are the MIDI ports still there, or is USB now a sufficient replacement? Could TOS and GEM be updated to modern demands or will it be running one of the free Unix OSes now available?

Let’s come up with the 4th alternative computing system. Forget about compatibility with other systems. We want it to be a whole different ecosystem. It will not be mainstream, it may not have a well-defined niche, but at least we will have an option to dream different again.

Or in other words

The alternatives have become too mainstream. We need that hipster computer platform to feel special again. ;)

Written on April 20, 2020