It's all spinning wheels and self-doubt until the first pot of coffee.

The Meta Lathe

Recently, I read yet another news article predicting the End of the PC in five years. Besides the usual claims that tend to look silly after a few years, there did seem to be a few good points. The one that sticks with me compares the general purpose computer to a metal lathe in someone's garage.

(Update: Thanks to Paul Mison for reminding me that the article was "The post-PC era is upon us" at The Register. The quote was, "We'd no more think of using [a PC] by the year 2010, than we think of buying a metal turning lathe today to make spare parts for our road vehicles.")

You don't want to use a metal lathe in your living room, and you wouldn't want to let just anyone loose on the thing unless they knew what they were doing. As shop in junior high taught me, a lathe is powerful tool capable of doing quite a variety of things. Some of those things leave you with jewelry and maybe more tools, and other (mis-)uses leave you with nasty injuries.

If you'll pardon the bad pun, a general-purpose computer is a “meta lathe”, capable of an enormous range of things. A “meta lathe” can be more dangerous than a metal lathe because it can be used on itself to expand its own capabilities. That is, one program can be used to introduce a new program that does entirely different things than the author of the original program intended.

For instance, consider a worm that finds its way into a system via security holes in Internet Explorer, which then goes on to link infected systems together into a remotely-controlled attack network. Somehow I doubt that that was a feature ever proposed on whiteboards in Redmond, but the meta lathe is flexible enough to oblige nonetheless.

Means and Ends All Tangled Up

So, we've got all these people using meta lathes in their living rooms, in their laps, and in coffee shops-- and an alarming lot of them have no idea what those suckers can do. Most of them aren't trained meta lathe technicians, nor do they want to be. Mostly, they just want to live better, be happier and more productive, talk to each other, maybe play some games. For them, the computer should melt into the fabric of their lives while they get on with doing other things. It's only a few odd ducks, including alpha geeks like myself, who want to crack things open, go meta, and turn the machine back upon itself.

So, why are all these people using full-on meta lathes again?

See, I think it all started back with the Homebrew Club and their contraptions. These were proto-lathes right from the start. Pretty soon, there rose assemblers and operating systems, which made it easier to write software like VisiCalc and WordStar--and so these meta lathes started looking interesting to people outside the Homebrew Clubs. However, these users didn't want meta lathes--they didn't even know what meta lathes were--they just wanted VisiCalc and WordStar and you needed one of these weird boxes to run them.

Problem is, the modern descendants of VisiCalc and WordStar have yet to be separated from the meta lathe platforms on which they were crafted. It's like you've made a bracelet or a ring on the lathe--but instead of unclamping it and taking it off the machine, you just wear it: bracelet, lathe, and all. Wouldn't it suck if someone accidentally plugged that thing in and turned it on while you were wearing it?

Archived Comments

  • You know, it's a tough call. We're geeks and we *want* a meta lathe type computer where the possibilities are wide open, and I always hear about these people who just want a deviced that does email, and can browse the web. And play music. And games... ;) Look at cell phones. Used to be they made calls. Now they can do email, and can browse the web. And play music. And games... ;) Round and round we go. I sort of feel like the computer cat is out of the bag and putting it back in will be no easy task.
  • The contrary concern is: if "the market" becomes "JavaRazors" or whatever the new ThinClient gets named, will the market for more open machines get so small that the prices go way up, or the market disappears altogether (as some are predicting for the PDA, as the cell-phone takes on many of its functions, though less well)....
  • It makes sense to buy appliances for those purposes that require associated hardware: a wireless routers, video game systems, media players, and file servers each have specialized hardware that doesn't belong in every user's computer/monitor/whatever. However, the idea of having each application hosted in its own dedicated device makes less sense. I have over 100 applications on my personal computer. Would I want to replace them with a rack of 100 devices? No! We don't all have basements where we can hide this stuff. Exchanging Microsoft Office data with other applications is hard enough as it is. If my Office data was in a locked box, accessible only through its network API, it would be even less useful. It would be nice to make all our "stuff" (data, software, hardware) available to us from whatever device we are using, or which is best suited to the task. However, the way to achieve this is not to get rid of the general-purpose computers. A better approach would be to improve the interoperability between the applications in the computer and the devices in the outside world.
  • Of course, these days, you probably don't want the home lathe either, just an account with emachineshop or some other easy cad-to-fab-to-fedex service :-) I can't quite bring myself to stretch that into a Web Services metaphor, though...