A restrospective on HAL-PC’s end and a look to the future

So it was about seven years ago this month that HAL-PC finally called it quits. (For those of you who don’t remember it, HAL-PC was the Houston Area League of PC Users, and at least at one point, was the largest user group of its type.)

A few things have changed since then, perhaps the biggest one being the COVID-19 pandemic, which was made a lot more bearable by technology. Even if, somehow, HAL-PC was still around going into that, I’m pretty sure the COVID-19 pandemic would have finished it off.

The one thing that has not changed, though, is how to a lot of people, computers are still just another appliance. Those of us who grew up with personal computers, or otherwise witnessed the very dawn of the technological revolution they brought about, knows that is not the case. On one hand, yes, the computer is an appliance. On the other, just about every modern appliance more complicated than a very basic mechanical toaster has some type of small computer in it. It’s not going to be something that runs anything close to a traditional operating system (GNU/Linux, Windows, etc), but it’s still a computer in the nominal sense of the term.

Mobile phones were always computer-based, at least in the broader sense (unlike their landline counterparts). Even “feature phones” (the phones that predated “smart phones”) have a CPU (central processing unit); in fact, usually they have more than one. During the twilight of the dominance of the landline phones (mid- to late 1990s), most if not all of the switching units used computer technology, even those at the smaller rural telephone cooperatives. Granted, the rural co-ops may not have had the very latest and greatest, but they were still digital/computerized switches.

As it turns out, there are some computer user groups still in existence. They are mainly for users of non-mainstream operating systems and computers, particularly GNU/Linux and *BSDs, and mid-range systems like the IBM i-Series (the new branding for the AS/400, which replaced the System/38 and its predecessors) among others. The current crop of WordPress meetups are de facto user groups (with the annual WordCamp events being an extension of them). But for mainstream general purpose computing? It’s hard to justify a user group for Microsoft Windows, when the entire point of Windows is to “appliance-ify” the entire computing experience and give it all the excitement and novelty of the average vacuum cleaner. Thus, a generic computer user group is about as exciting now as a hypothetical vacuum cleaner user group would be, and arguably about as useful too. (The main difference being you would ask your friends in the vacuum cleaner user group how to fix things when they didn’t suck. But I digress…)

Apple is even worse. The idea of a Mac user group is laughable. This is a product one typically pays a premium for (as in about twice the going price of a comparable “PC compatible” system) for fancier design and the privilege of getting to use the Genius Bar at Apple’s retail stores. Out-of-warranty repairs undoubtedly cost a premium as well, and the systems that are too far gone provide an opportunity for a Genius Bar tech to upsell you on a new system. It’s great for those that own Apple stock, and perhaps a more palatable approach to computing for those with more money than sense. I’m not sure it’s as great for the typical end user not wealthy enough to afford a yacht, private jet, high-end sports or luxury car, etc. Worse, Apple has made relatively limited contributions to the free software community; the one I’m aware of most is CUPS. They list contributions to “open source” which may or may not include projects that qualify as free software; remember the entire purpose of the term “open source” is to get people talking less about freedom (something which Apple directly attacks with their design of iOS).

Taking a more detailed look back at what I wrote in 2014:

Personally, I’ve never lost sight of the magic behind computing. I’ll admit it, I get a thrill out of installing a new operating system on either brand-new or new-to-me hardware, which I’ve done for every system up until the last one I received new (the one I’m writing this post on). This one was ordered custom-built and with the operating system (Ubuntu GNU/Linux 11.04) already on it for three reasons: first, because for once, it was a realistic option to buy a computer with Ubuntu pre-installed; second, I needed to make immediate use of the computer as soon as it arrived; and third, it was a different thrill to experience the closest equivalent to how most people today get a store-bought PC. The great job Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) has done even trying to mount some kind of challenge to what is a damn-near-monopoly by Microsoft deserves a post all its own (which I may make sometime in July).

I’m still using Ubuntu for now. I’m no longer quite as enamored with Canonical and what they’ve done with the OS; it’s a viable option but way too many upsells and proprietary options are sneaking in for me to be comfortable recommending it to others. When I upgraded my laptop to Ubuntu 20.04 LTS, I wound up with a disaster. (I decided a while back to stick to LTS versions because I hate having things break on upgrade. The pace of upgrades on a six-month schedule is just too chaotic for me now.) I rolled it back to 18.04 where it will probably stay until this laptop hits end of life (the battery is effectively unusable as now it usually lasts less than 30 minutes; it never lasted longer than an hour).

Arguably, the desktop in the office should have stayed on Ubuntu 18.04 as well, but it’s still running 20.04 for the foreseeable future. I’m now looking at PureOS, and would like to be able to upgrade at least the current laptop to Purism’s Librem 14 (or Librem 15 if/when it returns to production), if not also a Librem Mini to use as my primary desktop. I tried PureOS on the current laptop and it’s not a good fit.

My “other” computer is an 8GB Raspberry Pi 4 B+, running the stock Raspberry Pi OS for the moment. I have another Raspberry Pi 4 B+, which is a 2GB model I’m mainly using for some experiments. (I’m looking at alternatives with fewer or no dependencies on proprietary drives, though I will likely at least one original Raspberry Pi around for troubleshooting purposes and to confirm to friends “yes, you can do task XYZ on a Raspberry Pi”.) There are a few Raspberry Pi user groups out there, but once again, this is mainly because the platform is not considered general purpose. It’s certainly possible to use a Raspberry Pi similarly to a traditional desktop computer (especially with the 4GB and 8GB models). I’d be a bit nervous about betting my ability to do all my computing on a microSD card not failing, though. It has actually happened to me once; the microSD card booted one moment, and didn’t boot the next. Yes, my vocabulary resembled that of Q*Bert running into a purple snake for quite a while after, as I had to rebuild my system and restore what data I could from backups.

But I think it’s a sad commentary on the state of computing that most computer users in this decade will never even think that building their own computer is a realistic option, much less doing their own operating system install […]. There is a certain degree of intimidation to overcome when it comes to staring down an empty computer case and the components that will go into it.

As someone experienced in the craft, I wouldn’t mind doing another PC build from scratch. A good bit has changed since the last time I’ve done one. That previous build was during the SATA era, at least. (However, as an aside, I’ve been around long enough to remember with some fondness the joys of PC builds and upgrades from decades past. Just to name a few: parallel ATA connectors, PS/2 keyboard and mouse connections (what we used prior to USB), debugging IRQ conflicts on an ISA bus, the botch that was ISA “Plug and Play” (thankfully obsoleted by PCI and later standards), power connectors that would fry the motherboard if hooked up wrong, and other weird and not-so-wonderful things that would make most millenials cringe.)

However, the reality is that most of the reasons I had for building my own computer no longer apply. Companies like System76, ZaReason (through 2020 November, anyway), Purism, eRacks, ThinkPenguin, and the like had either just began operations (and in a pre-Web world, were likely hard to find), or flat out didn’t exist. Typically, one’s best bet was a local computer shop and even then it was tricky, as a lot of those local shops added Windows without asking. For a long time in the 1990s, when building your own PC was a huge pain in the donkey, a lot of people just gave up and bought something off the shelf with Windows on it. Thankfully we have left those days behind, and it is now much easier to avoid what has become known as the “Microsoft tax” (a licensing fee paid on an unused copy of Windows).

Getting back more directly to the topic at hand, I would like to see computing become exciting again. I am just not sure how to do that when everyone under the age of 30 has grown up with not just computers, but rather powerful computers compared to what was available during the infancy of the technology.

Even if technically possible, it will be damned tricky to restore a lot of the late 1970s to mid-1980s type excitement to computing here in 2021. Those who make computers and their software have worked to insulate the average user from the nuts and bolts and the work that goes into programming, and likely on purpose at that. Why let someone write their own software with a BASIC interpreter that comes with the computer and its operating system, when one can sell even the simplest proprietary shrinkwrapped software for $20 (and often $100, $1000, or even $20 or more per month for however long)? It’s greed. Filthy, vile, disgusting greed; it’s the simplest form of putting profits before people. These are the same people that push back against the concept of free software by saying “what the hell are these people going to do with the source code anyway?”

Honestly, that’s a damned shame. That tells me a lot about what is wrong with the current state of technology.