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The Digital (Fidelity) Revolution

Let's take a brief look at what we can put into next-generation, easily shipped keyboards and monitors to move these peripherals away from Windows-centric architectures and toward more modern Di-Fi architectures.

The keyboard is the thing that a computer user touches, and keyboards are cheap to ship. Keyboards should have a Gigabit Ethernet connection. They should have USB, WiFi, Bluetooth, headphone, speaker, mouse, and serial ports built in. None of that hands-on stuff should be on the PC itself—put it where the user's hands are. The PC should do what it does best: chug away in the background, number-crunching. These keyboards with the fancy doodads would require no changes to Windows, Macintosh, or Linux architectures; just add a server program or a driver. That form factor has worked before, too. Many of the early personal computers used a smart keyboard model: the VIC-20, the Commodore 64, the Spectrum. IBM mainframes also use that model, but in a different way. It's a high-performance architecture in a usable form factor.

An advanced keyboard, packed full of goodies, and costing $30 has 90% less shipping waste than a standard $10 keyboard. More value, less waste. That's better for consumers and for manufacturers.

Thin monitors are also cheap to ship. Most technical PC users now work with remote-desktop software such as VNC, Remote Desktop, or pcAnywhere, just as a matter of course. This technology is proven and is now ready for wider consumer application. Thin monitors should contain such software that gives the monitor multi-server access, freeing the monitor from those chunky, short cables. Even at high resolutions such as 1600x1200, there's no problem sending full-screen updates and movies down a dedicated network line. A thin, flat monitor with a Gigabit Ethernet connection can do that. A value-added monitor might contain camera and video equipment as well (some already do). All of that data can easily be sent to a PC through a network connection. None of it requires changes to Windows, Mac, or Linux. You only need to look at the software resident in high-definition TVs to see that this trend is already straightforward technically.

Long ago, we bought our Hi-Fi systems in pieces. Then we bought our audiovisual systems in pieces. The next generation of Di-Fi equipment? We're already buying it in pieces: cameras, keychain flash RAM drives, hand-computing devices. Keyboards and monitors should be next; and a simpler, quieter, cooler PC is the result when complicated I/O is removed from the PC case. PC cases can then also be smaller and cheaper, like a TiVo. Or like an Xbox, but without the price tag. Let's not ship empty cases full of hot air around the world. PCs are cheaper and better in nicely tooled pieces. In the Di-Fi world, some of those pieces are already emerging. If hardware vendors can grasp the opportunities and markets that free software architectures and standardized networks provide, many more such optimized pieces will appear in short order.

End users don't care what firmware or software lives inside their consumer purchases—especially keyboards and monitors. It might as well be something free and workable that leaves more of the purchase value in the hardware. (I can control my DVD/VCR with the remote, and I have no ideas what operating system makes the menus go. Even as a technical person, it doesn't matter to me that much.)

Di-Fi network-based architectures can also accommodate household electronics: TV, sound system, air conditioning. It makes no sense to park a PC next to the TV if a small network-enabled connector box can do the same thing.

In an ideal world, Steve Ballmer's $100 PC means $100 of hardware and $0 of software. That's what Linux costs, after all, and Linux is a desktop operating system. That's probably not what Steve had in mind, of course. His desire for a cheaper PC probably pays catch-up with the Di-Fi trend rather than leading it. If the Windows-PC architecture starts looking like an expensive option, it could be that all the other devices will learn to get along fine without it. If you have the right camera and printer, you can do that today. All in all, if Linux lives in your keyboard and monitor, where's the need for a monolithically integrated PC?

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