When is a computer not a computer?

Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion with my colleague Terese. She mentioned this website that lists Apple as the top manufacturer of “mobile PCs”. My question was, “Is the iPad a computer?”

I think the answer falls into the “glass half full or empty” category. The iPad is clearly computer technology. What Apple have done is to take a laptop and remove or “re-spec” many of the components. So, remove keyboard, mouse, hard-drive, USB, DVD, 3D graphics, cooling fans and the ability to run “ordinary” programs. Add touch-screen, Flash memory, a proper user interface and “apps”.  The result is a machine that’s really good at the things it’s designed for, but limited in what it can do.

Of course, there are people who don’t like being restricted, and immediately try to do more than is intended. When I worked at the Computer Science Department of University of Glasgow, a favourite trick was to “mod” an Xbox – another specialised computer, this time for games. The method was to buy a new BIOS chip and attach it to the existing one, replace the silly hard drive with a much bigger one, add a USB keyboard and mouse, and install Linux. The result? A decent computer with a fantastic graphics card at half the (then) price.

With the iPad, it’s “Jailbreaking”, and it lets you run non-Apple-approved apps. (Of course, Apple are not impressed…)

There are also ways around the reduced-spec of the iPad computer. For example, the Dragon Dictate app provides (remarkably good) speech recognition on the iPad. How, one may ask, when the processor is nowhere near fast enough? Well, you record up to 60 seconds of speech, and when you press “Stop” the iPad sends the recording to Dragon’s server farm somewhere in the world, which converts the audio to text on some multi-GHz computer and then sends the text back to your iPad (a clever promotion strategy for Dragon’s PC software).

My interest, of course, is in running virtual worlds. With a project here using Second Life to create virtual genetics laboratories, I’m interested in just what one needs to use a virtual world.

The ideal is a good computer (PC, or Mac) with a “proper” gaming graphics card. But the ideal is by no means necessary. On my home PC I upgraded the graphics very cheaply and effectively using a card designed more for Blu-ray playback. For system memory, no more than 3Gb is needed, and only the cheapest processors won’t be able to keep up.

So, just how much of a computer does one really need to run Second Life? Linden Labs have been experimenting recently with “the Dragon solution” – as with Dictate on the iPad, using an external server to do the difficult bit (in this case, rendering the graphics). By all accounts, it shows promise. You have to live in the US though if you want to try it 😦

If I were to tell you that there is a specialised device just perfect for running Second Life, much cheaper than a PC, fantastic graphics capability, and lots of people already own it, you might wonder why Linden Labs haven’t rushed to release a viewer for it. Well, so do I. Maybe there’s a good technical reason, or maybe it’s political. But to my mind, the XBox 360 is just perfect for Second Life (other games machines are available!). You could even sell the viewer, retail! Maybe Rod Humble would like to comment?

So when is a computer not a computer? Well, I guess the answer is, “When it’s only the bits of a computer you actually need”.

Paul Rudman
Beyond Distance research Alliance

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