'Ubuntu on Android may help find next Einstein'
18th Jun 2013 | 07:00
Linux International boss suggests wiring brains into computers as a backup plan
Jon 'maddog' Hall has headed nonprofit organisation Linux International since 1994. A proponent of free and open source software (FOSS) since his university days in the 70s, he now spends his time promoting the Linux operating system, consulting, and working with various groups promoting FOSS.
Some say his expertise on the Penguin-themed platform is matched only by his vast Star Trek knowledge.
Hall recently spent time in London to make preparations for Campus Party, a technology event taking place at the O2 arena in September. We caught up with him to chat about his love for open source software, the future of Linux, and why he's excited about Google Glass.
TechRadar: Hi maddog. How did you get your name?
Jon 'maddog' Hall: At the age of 27 I had to learn to control my temper, which I lost quite a bit. In some cases I was proud of it, but I had an incident at one time that convinced me that losing your temper is a way of losing an argument.
Everybody but my mother called me maddog. She died about two years ago aged 89, and now that's what everybody calls me.
I still have the temper, and I still get angry, in particular at people that do or say stupid things. But I've learned to control and channel that.
It's also a lot easier because if somebody yells "Jon" at you down the street, 20 people turn around. If you hear "maddog", it's usually for me.
TR: Things have been a bit quiet on the Linux International front recently. What's happening there?
JH: Linux International has come down to me going around talking to various organisations and working with groups like Campus Party to promote open source. I had an idea recently for reanimating Linux International as an end-user organisation as there's always this conflict between an organisation that represents companies versus one that represents the consumer.
However, you need a certain number of people to sustain an organisation, or you get stuck where Linux International was, which is where you have a small amount of revenue you can't really do anything with.
TR: How are preparations going for this year's Campus Party?
JH: Good. We're going to Cambridge University soon to bring some stuff back for it. You're probably aware of the fact they invented the EDSAC computer and did a lot of work on Xen. They also did the Raspberry Pi, which is how I linked up with them in the first place.
I'm also going to Bletchley Park where I'm hoping to get some stuff on Alan Turing and cryptography. The National Computer Museum's there too, so I'm also going to look at the Colossus computer and parallel computing.
TR: Do you think it's important that people know about such things?
JH: It's amazing the number of people who don't know the history of that. They may have heard that Bletchley Park did something about coding, and that Alan Turing did something, but they don't really know anything about the University of Cambridge, which is one of those things people call a 'crime against God'.
I go around the world talking to countries that for some reason think computer science has to come from Silicon Valley, or Seattle or Washington, which isn't true. It's logic, ones and zeros that you should be able to do anywhere. Free and open source software allows people to take that jump step. You don't have to go back to the days of when I started out, where a computer only ran one program at a time.
In the headquarters of the Nobel foundation, they have quotes from different businesses and philosophers. I think it was Newton who said "I stand on the shoulders of giants", and that's what free software allows you to do. It allows you to stand on the shoulders of giants.
TR: What was it that attracted you to free and open software?
JH: I used to be a beekeeper, and I can tell you that the honeycomb is the perfect structure for a combination of strength, volume of capacity of holding honey, and the least amount of materials allowed to make it.
The honeybee comes along with a piece of wax and puts it on the honeycomb, but no one bee creates the entire cell. They squeeze the wax a bit, bend it a little bit then move on, until another bee comes along and does the same, making the perfect honeycomb.
This is the way that software is created a lot of the time. People make the contributions to it. They squeeze it a little bit and the software improves. Again, this is why I love free software and believe in this method of creation.
I can look out and see these great projects and then find a person who's doing it and give them encouragement or exposure. That's also why I like Campus Party, because a lot of people come to it, and I can see them.
TR: You mentioned the Raspberry Pi. What project involving one has impressed you the most?
JH: There's a variety of them. I thought it was cute building a supercomputer out of Lego and lots of chips. There are other things, like the guy who put a Raspberry Pi in a balloon. The device is putting pressure on companies to build capable computers for as low amount of money as possible.
TR: You described Linux as "inevitable" after meeting Linus and using it for the first time. Why was that?
JH: When I met Linus Torvalds and saw Linux for the first time, I thought it was something set to change the computer industry. I really believed that, and I still do.
Lots of people ask where Linux is on the desktop, and I reply by saying that we're on 98% of the world's fastest 500 computers and on 60% of servers going out of the door. We're also the most used operating system in embedded systems design and we're on more phones than iOS. Plus we're on tablets.
Yes, only about 7% of desktops now being put into use are running Linux, but that's increasing, particularly in developing nations. I'm happy with that. It takes time, and there's this thing called inertia in the world.
TR: Why aren't more people aware of Linux considering its ubiquity?
JH: With an embedded system, almost by definition you don't know what the operating system is. Because Android is called Android, a lot of people don't know it's a Linux kernel, just like a lot of people don't know iOS is FreeBSD. I've always had a little bit of a problem with that.
A lot of companies never mention the operating system, and even when talking about an application, they just mention Oracle or whatever. I ask them why not, and the reply I get is that people aren't interested in knowing. I say OK, then why do people struggle with what operating system to buy if they're not interested in it? I've never been able to get people to really tell me the truth about this.
TR: Do you think it's partly down to marketing?
JH: I think it's the marketing people who don't see any value in mentioning the operating system. That's another reason why Linux in a lot of cases is invisible. The thing is, every time you buy a Microsoft operating system or Microsoft Office, a lot of your money goes to marketing. That means the company ends up marketing back to you after you've already bought their software.
In the US, arguably the richest, most powerful country in the world, 34% of its PC software is pirated. If all those people purchased the software, then Microsoft would be able to plate their hallways with gold. As it is, they can only plate them with silver.
Microsoft is a marketing company, and I keep telling people if technology was what sold software, then they would still be waiting to sell their first copy. On the other hand, you have Linux, where a lot of companies download it for free.
By definition, there's only so much we can spend on advertising. I think it's almost a miracle that here's software with no big marketing company behind it that has got as far as it has by word of mouth. I think it's amazing.
TR: How is Linux going to change in the smartphone age?
JH: Linus said a year or so ago that the Linux kernel is maturing, but there's still lots of people that keep working on it, trying new processors and new things to reduce the amount of power utilisation in cellphones and tablets.
I think that from a kernel standpoint we're continually working in the same direction of making it scalable, smaller and more secure with better performance. There's only so much you can do though, as you can't squeeze blood out of a turnip.
You have the trade off of something that you want to have, like multitasking and better power utilisation, security, and other things. Certainly, there's still a lot to be done with the graphical user interface too.
TR: Ubuntu on Android is looking very slick in that area.
JH: I'm very interested in Ubuntu, which is interesting, as it it's aiming to have exactly the same interface across cloud, servers, desktops, TVs, and now smartphones. I don't think people quite understand that.
TR: Do you think Ubuntu on smartphones could find Linux an audience that may not have checked out the desktop version?
JH: What's great is the commercialisation of this. It's fascinating, and if you think of where the next Albert Einstein of computer science could come from, if people can afford a smartphone running Ubuntu to give them a computer to practice what they're doing, we're much more likely to find them and see them.
But this is kind of like Star Trek. The people that say everything can be done on your phone are usually those writing articles at their desk in front of 14 monitors. I like to plan my trips at my desk, fill up my calendar, go on Google Maps, and find directions. On my phone I make corrections to those. I don't do the whole thing on it.
You don't see characters on Star Trek going to the sick bay to fight the battle as that's not their workstation. You can do simple navigation from the bridge, but if you want to do real navigation, you go to the navigation room where there's big maps and other large things with input methods.
In reality, the only time we will ever be able to get away from the workstation thing is when we attach connections to our brain and can do brain-to-computer thought to amplify our being. I think it'll be a long time before computers replace our being, but we can use them to amplify it.
TR: What do you think of Google Glass?
JH: I'm actually pretty excited about it. I've been wearing these glasses since I was 12 as I can't wear contacts. The only thing they can do is improve the vision, whereas I'd like telescopic vision, microscopic vision, x-ray vision and infra-red vision.
I'm perfectly happy about having amplification of my body to do these things, just like a calculator is an amplification of my ability to do math. I should still understand how to do math, though. I shouldn't just give it over to the calculator, and people should still have control over stuff they do with Glass.
TR: Have you tried Glass yet?
JH: I haven't as I don't have $15,000 to throw on something. I've tried heads up displays, so I know what Glass is.
However, I'm also particularly excited about the concept of Siri and voice communications. I'm a big fan of Star Trek, and I'd love to be able to talk to a computer the same way they talk to the ship's computer and have it understand me, so I think all those things are great.
TR: What else would you like to see from Star Trek? Teleporters?
JH: I feel the same way about teleporters that Dr. McCoy felt. He was always uncomfortable going into the teleporter, and I think I would be too. I'm much more happy with the concept of the replicator, something that could put a cup of tea in front of me.
TR: It looks fairly uncomfortable. Moving on, do you think Linux is a natural fit for gaming?
JH: Yes, and many years ago I looked at the gaming problem, which is interesting. Quite frankly, the lack of games is one of the big reasons why Linux hasn't made it onto [more] desktops.
Even people who are 50 years old are going to say they have to have a particular game, so they have to have to do a dual boot and stick with Windows. Of course, developers look for the largest install base possible, which is naturally Windows, and then Apple. They don't take it to the third platform as that would take away engineering resources for marking new additions and features.
I'm glad that Steam is on Linux now, as unfortunately there were a lot of gaming companies, such as ID, that went into it a bit too early and we didn't see the success that they had hoped for. The other thing that the gaming community has to know or think about is that there's a high degree of piracy within games. Every time the gaming people think they've fixed the piracy problem, there's another way around it.
Even if free software people don't necessarily believe in pirating, they do believe in free software, so there's even fewer people who would download a game and pay for it. As the number of people using desktop Linux increases, not because it's free but because it's a good system, you might find an ever-expanding market.
Plus the gaming people are changing their strategy. The game may be free, and money will be made other ways in-game, or by selling little figures, so the more people that use the game the better.
Also the gaming engines tend to be simpler and more portable, and what they're doing is selling data that's the same across different systems, which could be the game's music, scenes and engine. The effort of creating a game on Linux is now minute, so they're all doing it.