The Latest, Greatest, Scariest, and the Future of Information
What can I say? It has been a crazy couple of weeks. Not just for me, but for the world in general. Well, not in general, but certainly on some fronts on which I find fascinating and, not surprisingly, I have an opinion. First off, if you wander off into the wilds of planet *buntu, you may notice an increasingly Lucid Lynx prowling around. Be warned, however, that this Lynx is an Alpha and unless you're the sort of person who likes to mess with Alphas, you might want to steer clear until this Lynx turns into a beta. As a side note, you should read Christopher Moore's "A Dirty Job" where he provides us with a wonderfully amusing, and mostly true, description of a Beta Male.
And yes, I'm just the sort of person who likes to mess with Alphas, so I downloaded the Kubuntu and Ubuntu versions, for the sheer unparalleled joy of seeing what's new under the hood. The big news is no more HAL, which is just as well since HAL was an embarrassing choice for acronym given that it never had a chance of living up to Arthur C. Clarke's HAL 9000. HAL (that would be Hardware Abstraction Layer) was certainly insane, but it became an integral part of the system, providing among other things, instant device recognition so that when you plug in your USB stick, it was magically available on your graphical desktop. DeviceKit will, according to the Ubuntu folk, make "Ubuntu faster to boot and faster to resume from suspend." Sure, but will it still support my wireless card? Remember what I said about Alphas.
Also on the scene is the much hyped, and not at all surprising, release of Apple's iPad. Yes, this magical device will change the world of computing as we know it (again) and save the publishing industry (again). Forget ebook readers. Forget the Kindle. Despite all its shortcomings (no Webcam, no Flash support, no memory card reader, no USB support, no multitasking), the iPad is here.
While I'm not convinced that the iPad will be the publishing industry's savior, I do know that's it's a cool looking piece of hardware -- that's what Apple does best; make cool looking hardware and convince us that this iDevice is a lifestyle choice that defines you as a person. (Editorial note: Marcel does not actually own any Apple hardware). I also know how we'll know whether the iPad is a success or not. That's right. Somebody will port a version of Ubuntu to run on the iPad. For now, let's call it the Ubuntu iPad Edition Remix. If the iPad touches anyone in the open source community, iPadBuntu is right around the corner.
You know how else we'll know. Google will release plans for its own Linux-based pad. Let's call it the gPad.
On the subject of publishing's future, it's hard for me to step back and be totally objective. As a professional writer (and sometimes editor), I have a vested interest in the success of the publishing industry. There are plenty of ebook readers out there and they've only had marginal impact on sales. They have certainly done nothing to help the slide of newspapers though some would argue it's because we still don't have the right platform to deliver the content we need or want. Part of me shudders to think about the formats this content will take, and whether those formats will be in any way future-proof. What's the point of producing content that is locked into a proprietary format that may be difficult or impossible to access at a future date.
There's a great little book by Neal Stephenson called "In The Beginning . . . Was The Command Line". In his book, which every long time Linux user and enthusiast should read, Neal talks about the history of computing, plain text vs graphical interfaces, Microsoft, Apple, and Linux . . . among other things. He does, as well, touch on the importance of open formats as a means on ensuring that information survives. Plain text is the only format that has shown any sign of surviving beyond a few years. But in this world of instant information, live updates, and up to the minute brain dumps, are we now moving away from static information. Have we already done so?
Your Kubuntu and/or Ubuntu system comes with document readers that support a host a number of different formats. KDE has Okular, which I use to read the countless PDF manuals that envelop the information I need from time to time. It can also open JPG and PNG files, open document text files (ODT), but it can't open plain text.
What kind of document reader doesn't support plain text?
And before you GNOME users get too comfortable and start pointing fingers at KDE, allow me to point out that Evince, the multi-format document reader that comes with GNOME, does not support plain text either (click on the Figure to the right).
Which brings me to the big question to which I don't have an answer.
What do people really want when it comes to published content?. Is plain text dead? Are we moving entirely to the Web or do we want tablets of some kind, the sort the the iPad represents? Are ebook readers of any interest to you? Do you own one and buy books with it? What about newspapers and magazines on that ebook reader? What about your friends and family? How do you (want to) consume published works?
Okay, that's more than just one question. It just seems to me that the answer to the ultimate question of the future of the publishing industry isn't another device, but something basic that we've all overlooked. I just don't know what it is.
Until next time . . .