Back in 2000 I stood facing a man holding a loaded and cocked Heckler and Koch submachine gun. His finger was on the trigger and the barrel was pointed directly at me. This was a definite brown trouser moment.
For us Brits, guns are still something the A-Team shoots the baddies with. Lots of bangs from weapons that hold an unlimited supply of bullets, and then the baddies hold up their hands and give in. Nobody gets hurt, naturally, except Mr T, who has to be drugged to get him into the helicopter. In general, we don’t see or hear guns in real life in the UK other than perhaps the occasional distant sound of a shotgun, or after 9 PM in some of our city centers such as Manchester. From what we see on TV, it seems the reverse is true in the US. Policemen carry guns by default, and it seems every kid in middle America is given an automatic weapon as soon as she is able to walk.
Luckily for me, the gun-toting man was a special policeman on duty at the venue I was trying to enter. It was the Grand Hotel in Brighton where 16 years earlier the Provisional IRA tried to blow up Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, at her political party conference. In those days, my home was less that a mile away. The explosion woke me up, and later I saw its dreadful consequences. In fact, I actually did quite well from the bombing, because I salvaged for my antiques shop many of the fine fixtures and fittings thrown away as builders rebuilt the hotel.
The policeman confronting me was checking my entry pass for the Grand Hotel where our present government was holding its Millennium Labour Party conference. My colleague and I had been contracted to supply and install a large network of over 20 computers. As the Labour Party’s color is red, we naturally got a lorry load of strawberry iMacs, plus a couple of G4 desktop computers, both of which came home with me after the event.
Once the policeman let me through and the bomb detectors decided there was no Semtex in my underpants, we got down to the installation. All the Macs were brand new. Installing them meant opening their boxes, fixing up the keyboards and mice, adding extra RAM to each Mac, and installing Mac OS 9 and software before getting them physically networked together via a heavyweight Buffalo switching hub that also came home afterwards. By lunchtime we completed the job, tested each computer, set up ISDN, and tidied all the boxes away.
In the room next door were a couple of PC engineers who had three or four computers to install. They had arrived before us and were hard at it even as the gun had been thrust in my face. When we returned to check the Macs the next day, the two PC experts were still completing the job. They had got the computers networked but hadn’t managed to get them all talking to the printer, let alone connected to the outside world.
It is no wonder then, that CNET runs so many free online courses for computer users. Nearly all are geared to the needs of Windows users, but there are some concerning cross-platform applications such as Photoshop or digital photography. Looking at the list, one wonders why anyone would ever use Windows if they need a course to tell them how to make a home network or set up video conferencing—let alone how to update their iPod or build a photo library.
We Mac users have life easy because all of the above are very simple point-and-click affairs. Networking at most involves plugging the wires into the right sockets and turning on file sharing for each Mac. Updating iPods is usually done automatically by Software Update when the iPod is connected for charging or reloading with tunes. Photo libraries are almost too simple to build and share with iPhoto. There are times when specific images on a digital camera are not intended for long term storage, yet iPhoto will happily download them if one isn’t careful. Apple’s latest computers come with a camera built in, so video conferencing is poised to take over from standard voice-only telephones, and iChat makes it easy to accomplish.
Moreover, Apple has progressively made things even easier. Bonjour was first included as Rendezvous in Mac OS X 10.2. It supplies an automatic, zero configuration network without special servers and was devised by Englishman Stuart Cheshire. He had earlier written, amongst other things, an addictive computer game called Bolo, a multiplayer networked tank game. There are still versions around for Mac OS X including XBolo and nuBolo. Stuart is now “Wizard Without Portfolio” at Apple. This is a video of Stuart describing his zero configuration networks to engineers at Google.
Zero configuration was pioneered by Apple and adopted in its move from AppleTalk to IP (Internet Protocol) networking. It automatically identifies each networked device (computer, printer, etc.), gives each its own numeric address and name, and works out where to get services such as printing. Apple has made Bonjour open source. The purpose of zero configuration isn’t just to make it easy to network computers together, which it does already. It has a much longer term goal to create new kinds of networked products that are not available today because they would cost too much or would be too difficult or inconvenient to set up.
What these will actually be is unknown, but intriguing to think about. We’ve already got networked scanners, telephones, fax machines, printers, cameras, music and video devices. So what’s next? Distributed, Bluetooth washing machines perhaps, all sharing the washload?
Also in This Series
- What Trick, What Device, What Starting-Hole… · May 2012
- Do Androids Dream? · April 2012
- Our Macs Are Under Attack · March 2012
- The Best and Worst Christmas Presents · February 2012
- The Best Use for a Kindle · January 2012
- It’s Got No Blinking Light · January 2012
- Box-Shifting Causes Migration · December 2011
- The Best Thing About the iPhone 4S and How to Cope in Clink · December 2011
- Death of a Salesman · November 2011
- Complete Archive