Friday, October 01, 2004

Greig is the Uber Geek. And a Canadian to boot.

PBS | I, Cringely . Archived Column
Like many of us, Andrew Greig put a WiFi access point in his house so he could share his broadband Internet connection. But like hardly any of us, Andrew uses his WiFi network for Internet, television, and telephone. He cancelled his telephone line and cable TV service. Then his neighbors dropped-by, saw what Andrew had done, and they cancelled their telephone and cable TV services, too, many of them without having a wired broadband connection of their own. They get their service from Andrew, who added an inline amplifier and put a better antenna in his attic. Now most of Andrew's neighborhood is watching digital TV with full PVR capability, making unmetered VoIP telephone calls, and downloading data at prodigious rates thanks to shared bandwidth. Is this the future of home communications and entertainment? It could be, five years from now, if Andrew Greig has anything to say about it.

The advantage Andrew Greig has over most of the rest of us is that he works for Starnix, an international Open Source software and services consultancy in Toronto, Canada. Starnix, which deals with huge corporate clients, has the brain power to get running what I described above. And it goes much further than that simple introduction.

Somewhere in Andrew's house is a hefty Linux server running many applications, including an Asterisk Open Source VoIP software PBX. There is no desktop PC in Andrew's house. Instead, he runs a Linux thin client on a Sharp Zaurus SL-6000 Linux PDA. Sitting in its cradle on Andrew's desk at home, the Zaurus (running a special copy of Debian Linux, NOT as shipped by Sharp) connects to a full-size keyboard and VGA display, and runs applications on the server. Another cradle, monitor and keyboard are at Andrew's office, where he also doesn't have a PC. Walking around in his house, the Zaurus (equipped with a tri-mode communications card) is a WiFi VoIP phone running through the Asterisk PBX and connecting to the Vonage VoIP network. Walking out of his house, the Zaurus automatically converts to the local mobile phone carrier, though with a data connection that still runs back through Vonage. At Starbucks, it's a Wifi Vonage phone. At Andrew's office, it is a WiFi extension to the office Asterisk PBX AND to Andrew's home PBX. That's one PDA doing the job of two desktop PCs, a notebook PC, and three telephones.

Yeah, but what about that wireless TV? How does that work? Andrew's server runs Myth TV, an Open Source digital video recorder application, storing on disk in MPEG-4 format (1.5-2 megabits-per-second) more than 30,000 TV episodes, movies and MP3 music files. "As each new user comes online, I add another TV card to the system so they can watch live TV," says Andrew, "but since there are only so many episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, nearly everything that isn't news or sports is typically served from disk with full ability to jump forward or back at will. We've reached the point now where the PVR has so much in storage already that it is set to simply record anything that isn't already on disk." ...

....Unlike most other wireless networks, Starnix uses 802.11a, which matches the 54 megabits-per-second speed of 802.11g, but does so in the five GHz band where there is less interference. Even more important, while 802.11g (and -b) have a maximum of only three non-conflicting channels, 802.11a in North America supports 24 non-conflicting channels for at least eight times the total bandwidth...

Greig can distribute the TV because he's set himself up as the world's smallest cable TV company.

This story made my jaw drop. If it's not a spoof of some kind (this isn't April 1, right?) it's truly astounding. I've been campaigning for Apple to do a multi-user thin client for years, but neither they nor Microsoft are willing to risk the market disruption. That may be the true strength of Linux and other open source solutions -- they don't give a damn about market disruption.

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