Linux, politics, and other interesting things
In a comment on my post about Designing Unsafe Cars  Noel said “If you don’t know how to make a surgery, you don’t do it. If you don’t know how to drive, don’t drive. And if you don’t know how to use a computer, don’t expect anybody fix your disasters, trojans and viruses.” Later he advocates using a taxi.
Now I agree about surgery – apart from corner cases such as medical emergencies in remote places and large-scale disasters. I also agree that it’s good to avoid driving if you aren’t very good at it (that would be much better than the current fad of sub-standard drivers buying large 4WD vehicles).
But I don’t think that people who lack computer skills should avoid using computers.
When cars were first invented everyone who owned one was either a mechanic or employed one. Driving a car often involved being well out of range of anyone else who might know how to fix it, so either the car owner or their chauffeur had to be able to fix almost any problem. As the car industry evolved the level of mechanical knowledge required to own and operate a car has steadily decreased. I expect that a significant portion of drivers don’t know how to top up the oil or radiator water in their car and probably don’t know what is the correct pressure for air in their tires. To a large extent I don’t think this is a problem, owning a car involves regularly taking it to be serviced where professionals will (or at least should) check every aspect of the car that is likely to fail. If I used my windscreen-washer less frequently I could probably avoid opening the bonnet of the car between scheduled services!
When budgeting for car ownership you just have to include regularly spending a few hundred dollars to pay for an expert to find problems and fix them – with of course the occasional large expense for when something big breaks.
When the computer industry matures I expect that the same practice will occur. Most people will buy computers and plan to spend small amounts of money regularly to pay people to maintain it. Currently most older people seem to plan to have a young relative take care of their PC for them – essentially free mechanic services. The quality of such work will vary of course, and poorly designed OSs that are vulnerable to attack may require more support than can be provided for free.
Due to deficiencies in city design it is almost essential to drive a car in most parts of the US and Australia – as opposed to countries such as the Netherlands where you can survive quite well without ever driving. When a service is essential it has to be usable by people who have little skill in that area. It would be good if driving wasn’t necessary, I would be happy if I never drove a car again.
The need to use computers however will continue to increase. So we need to make them more available to users and to support users who can’t disinfect computers etc. The only skill requirements for using a computer should be the ability to use a keyboard and a mouse!
This requires a new industry in supporting PCs. Geek Squad in the US  seems to be the organisation that is most known for this. I expect that there will be multiple companies competing for such work in every region in the near future, just as there are currently many companies competing for the business of servicing cars.
We need support for free software from such companies. Maybe existing free software companies such as Red Hat and Canonical can get into this business. One advantage of having such companies supporting software is that they would have a strong commercial incentive to avoid having it break – unlike proprietary software vendors who have little incentive to do things right.
The next issue is the taxi analogy. Will software as a service with Google subsidising our use of their systems  take over any significant part of the market?
Of course the car analogy breaks down when it comes to privacy, no-one does anything remotely private in a taxi while lots of secret data is stored on a typical home computer. Google is already doing some impressive security development work which will lead towards low maintenance systems  as well as protecting the privacy of the users – to the extent that you can trust whoever runs the servers.
My parents use their computer for reading email, browsing the web, and some basic wordprocessing and spreadsheet work. The mail is on my IMAP server so all I need is to have some way to store their office documents on a server and they will pretty much have a dataless workstation. Moving their collection of photos and videos of their friends and relatives to a server will be a problem, transferring multiple gigabytes of data on a cheap Australian Internet access plan is a problem.