Thursday, April 24, 2014

Crowdfunding the recovery of a lost spacecraft

This post was original published on the MAKE Blog
The ISEE-3 spacecraft
The hackers behind the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project  have moved on to a different challenge. Not content with images, this time they want to recover a whole spacecraft.
The ISEE-3 probe was launched in 1978. After completing it’s original mission—it was the first spacecraft ever to enter a halo orbit at one of the Earth-Sun Lagrangian points—studying the interaction between the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind, it was repurposed—leaving its halo orbit—it was sent on its way to intercept Comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1985, and then Comet Halley in 1986 as part of the Halley Armada. Afterwards, left in a heliocentric orbit, it was then used for  investigations of coronal mass ejections until 1997 when it was decommissioned by NASA.
However after the Comet Halley encounter in the 80′s the ISEE-3 was intentionally left in an orbit that would—eventually—bring the 35 year old spacecraft home, and if Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing have their way, it’ll return to a warm welcome from its creators.
They’ve set up a crowdfunding effort to cover the costs of getting back in contact with the spacecraft, and ordering it to fire its thrusters one last time to put it into Earth orbit. The intricate trajectory necessary to make that happen—including a flyby of the Moon at an altitude of less than 50 km—has already been calculated by Robert Farquhar, the original mission design specialist from ISEE-3′s Halley encounter.
Our plan is simple: we intend to contact the ISEE-3 (International Sun-Earth Explorer) spacecraft, command it to fire its engine and enter an orbit near Earth, and then resume its original mission – a mission it began in 1978.
If successful ISEE-3 will spend its retirement as a platform for citizen science, with smartphone apps—and a twitter feed—giving students direct access to the instruments onboard the ageing spacecraft.
The instrumentation carried by the ISEE-3 spacecraft.
While the spacecraft carries no imaging cameras, 12 of the probes 13 onboard instruments were still working back in 1999—the  last time NASA contacted the spacecraft—and it’d be a powerful tool in the hands of educators allowing amateurs and students access to instrumentation to measure plasma, high-energy particles and the magnetic fields in Earth orbit.
This is a great opportunity to put what is still world class instrumentation into the hands of the community. But orbital dynamics means that there’s only one chance to do so, and contact must be reestablished with the probe in late May or early June to ensure that the burn into Earth orbit happens during the correct window—and there are just 24 days left to find the money to do it.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Board Room Hour

Back in October last year I was out in New York for the Hardware Innovation Workshop and Maker Faire New York where I took part in a panel discussion along with Massimo Banzi and Jason Kridner—and chaired by MAKE's Dale Dougherty—on what's in store for micro-controllers, and what the next generation of board could bring.

Hacking the CES Scavenger Hunt

This post was originally publish on the MAKE Blog 
and co-authored with Sandeep Mistry.

It has just been announced that at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) will feature a promotional scavenger hunt based around Apple's iBeacon technology. What if you could win the hunt, without ever having to go to CES? 
What if you could win the hunt, without ever having to go to CES?
Quietly introduced by Apple at WWDC last year, iBeacon is a technology that allows you to add real world context to smart phone applications. Based around Bluetooth LE—part of the new Bluetooth 4.0 standard—it’s a way to provide basic indoor navigation and proximity detection. As we talked about when we reverse engineered the Estimote beacons, there are three properties of an iBeacon that work together to create the beacon’s identity. These are:
  • UUID — This is a property which is unique to each company, in most use cases the same UUID would be given to all beacons deployed by a company (or group).
  • Major — The property that you use to specify a related set of beacons, e.g. in a retail setting all the beacons in one store would share the same Major value.
  • Minor — The property that you use to specify a particular beacon in a location.
The scavenger hunt is therefore a hunt for a number of beacons that will probably all share the same UUID and Major numbers, but will have different Minor numbers. Effectively, we're looking for a set of beacons. However wandering the hallways at CES hoping to get into the—approximate 100 foot range—of all of the iBeacons they've scattered across the show floor sounds like a lot of work. CES has teamed up with Radius Networks who are providing the iBeacon hardware, and Marc Wallace—CEO and cofounder of Radius Networks—has this to say about the hunt,
This is one of the coolest proximity-aware apps we have worked on. This is also one of the first, tangible applications that leverages iBeacon technology. And it is a great example of how iBeacon technology is not just about advertising as it is about bringing new and innovative solutions to the marketplace. We are very excited to be a part of it.
Since they're using hardware from Radius Networks we can't just assume—as we could with the Estimote hardware—that we know the UUID of the beacons. However the identities of the beacons—all of the beacons—are somewhere where we can easily get our hands on them, the CES mobile app. Sure enough looking at the CES Android application—it's fairly easy just to download the APK without having to install—there are some hints there for us and using a decompiler it was fairly easy to find the details of the target beacons. 
The Minor numbers of the nine target beacons in the code of the CES mobile application.
The Minor numbers of the nine target beacons in the code of the CES mobile application.
The iBeacon UUID we're looking for is 842AF9C4-08F51-1E39-282F-23C91AEC05E, while the Major number—interestingly not actually needed and just ignored by the Android application—is 65000, while the nine beacons scattered throughout the CES venue have Minor numbers from 65001 to 65009.
The completed scavenger hunt—all nine beacons.
An almost completed scavenger hunt—with eight of the nine beacons already "found."
Since we now know the identities of the beacons, it's trivial to finish the scavenger hunt without ever going to CES as it's actually fairly simple to build your own iBeacon hardware and "fake" the app into thinking you've found the beacons. To do that you can either use a Raspberry Pi, or a Bluetooth LE board like the Red Bear Labs BLE Mini board—Radius Networks, the people supplying the hardware to CES, is even selling a "iBeacon Development Kit" which would work just fine for our purposes. 

At which point—now you have your own iBeacon hardware—you can just go ahead and set the UUID, Major and Minor numbers of your beacon to each of the CES scavenger hunt beacon identities in turn, and then bring your beacon into range of your cell phone running which should be running the CES mobile app. Once you've shown the app all of the beacons, you'll have "finished" the scavenger hunt and can claim your prize. Of course doing that isn't legal. It's called fraud and will probably land you in serious trouble. 

Of course it could be worse. If they are using Estimote hardware it'd be easy for someone to make the hunt impossible to complete. Because as we've shown, anyone with the Estimote SDK can modify the UUID, Major and Minor number of the Estimote beacons in the field. Which would have meant that the beacons deployed across the CES floor didn't work for the scavenger hunt anymore. 

We talked about both of the ability to configure "fake" beacons, and the ability to disable beacon in the field—in our discussion of our reverse engineering of the Estimote iBeacon hardware. However, we didn't think we'd see something like this quite as soon.

The Snapchat Leak

This was first published on the O'Reilly Radar
The number of Snapchat users by area code.
The number of Snapchat users by geographic location. Users are predominately located in New York, San Francisco and the surrounding greater New York and Bay Areas. 
While the site crumbled quickly under the weight of so many people trying to get to the leaked data—and has now been suspended—there isn't really such a thing as putting the genie back in the bottle on the Internet. Just before Christmas the Australian based Gibson Security published a report highlighting two exploits in the Snapchat API claiming that hackers could easily gain access to users’ personal data. Snapchat dismissed the report, responding that,

Theoretically, if someone were able to upload a huge set of phone numbers, like every number in an area code, or every possible number in the U.S., they could create a database of the results and match usernames to phone numbers that way.

Adding that they had various "safeguards" in place to make it difficult to do that. However it seems likely that—despite being explicitly mentioned in the initial report four months previously—none of these safeguards included rate limiting requests to their server, because someone seems to have taken them up on their offer.

Data Release

Earlier today the creators of the now defunct SnapchatDB site released 4.6 million records—both as an SQL dump and as a CSV file. With an estimated 8 million users (May, 2013) of the app this represents around half the Snapchat user base. Each record consists of a Snapchat user name, a geographical location for the user, and partially anonymised phone number—the last two digits of the phone number having been obscured. While Gibson Security's find_friends exploit has been patched by Snapchat, minor variations on the exploit are reported to still function, and if this data did come from the exploit—or a minor variation on it—uncovered by Gibson, then the dataset published by SnapchatDB is only part of the data the hackers now hold. In addition to the data already released they would have the full phone number of each user, and as well as the user name they should also have the—perhaps more revealing—screen name.

Data Analysis

Taking an initial look at the data, there are no international numbers in the leaked database. All entries are US numbers, with the bulk of the users from—as you might expect—the greater New York, San Francisco and Bay areas. However I'd assume that the absence of international numbers is  an indication of laziness rather than due to any technical limitation. For US based hackers it would be easy to iterate rapidly through the fairly predictable US number space, while "foreign" numbers formats might present more of a challenge when writing a script to exploit the hole in Snapchat's security. Only 76 of the 322 area codes in the United States appear in the leaked database, alongside another two Canadian area codes, mapping to 67 discrete geographic locations—although not all the area codes and locations match suggesting that perhaps the locations aren't derived directly from the area code data. Despite some initial scepticism about the provenance of the data I've confirmed that this is a real data set. A quick trawl through the data has got multiple hits amongst my own friend group, including some I didn't know were on Snapchat—sorry guys. Since the last two digits were obscured in the leaked dataset the partial phone number string might—and frequently does—generate multiple matches amongst the 4.6 million records against a comparison number. I compared the several hundred US phone numbers amongst my own contacts against the database—you might want to do that yourself—and generated several spurious hits where the returned user names didn't really seem to map in any way to my contact. That said, as I already mentioned, I found several of my own friends amongst the leaked records, although I only knew it was them for sure because I knew both their phone number and typical choices of user names.


As it stands therefore this data release is not—yet—critical, although it is certainly concerning, and for some individuals it might well be unfortunate. However if the SnapchatDB creators choose to release their full dataset things might well get a lot more interesting. If the full data set was released to the public, or obtained by a malicious third party, then the username, geographic location, phone number, and screen name—which might, for a lot of people, be their actual full name—would be available. This eventuality would be bad enough. However taking this data and cross-correlating it with another large corpus of data, say from Twitter or Gravatar, by trying to find matching user or real names on those services—people tend to reuse usernames on multiple services after all—you might end up with a much larger aggregated data set including email addresses, photographs, and personal information. While there would be enough false positives—if matching solely against user names—that you'd have a interesting data cleaning task afterwards, it wouldn't be impossible. Possibly not even that difficult. I'm not interested in doing that correlation myself. But others will.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Trouble with Things

At the tail end of last month I was out in Portland at OSCON where I gave an Ignite talk on the trouble with things...

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Makers of Things

This post was first published in Make magazine
The Society isn’t like any other engineering society. It’s a community united by a passion for making things and testing ideas. Their unparalleled devotion to their craft is evidence of a universal truth that’s relevant to us all; we learn only by doing.

There’s something about Britain, it’s the land of God’s own hobbyists. But not only that, if there are more than two people in the country that are interested in a topic, they will feel almost compelled to for a club or society, and since this is Britain the club might well have been around since the early 1800′s or earlier. The bylaws will be arcane, and the committee structure labyrinth. It will inevitably serve tea and biscuits during meetings, rarely coffee. Because that’s how we do things over here.

Mike Kapp lives in a peaceful cul-desac, quietly shaping his house into a system of his invention. Cat-flaps, clocks and ghostly machines are the fruits of a lifetime of problem solving and inquiry. His experience holds a lesson for us all: curiosity is the key to craftsmanship.

The Makers of Things is a short film collection by Anne Hollowday. It documents the work and workshops of the Society for Model and Experimental Engineers, a sprawling organisation with members scattered all over the world. While today we hacker spaces, maker spaces and fab labs, back in the 1800′s they had the learned society.

In the flickering light of a cinema Mike Chrisp watched a gentle Ealing comedy that would change his life. Now the linchpin of a world-renowned group of hobbyists and tinkerers, he builds models of the machines that inspired him all those years ago.

Founded in 1898 by Percival Marshall, the Society seems to be almost a template, a model if you will, of one of these British institutions. Many were founded with royal patronage, and many still exist today. The Society has survived two world wars as well as the introduction of technologies that were not even be dreamed about when it was formed.
The world is full of of people that are making stuff in ways that were impossible a few years ago. There’s always going to be that mixture of people that think if you don’t make your own castings and machine them with files, cold chisels and hammers—you’re not doing it properly, and the other half that think the right way to do it is to use a laser—and increasingly things like three-dimensional printing, are coming along, and changing the way everybody works.
Norman Billingham’s workshop has been pulled up around him over a lifetime. Chippings, clippings and filings fill a garage used to transform lumps of wood into beautiful pens and functional furniture. Although a scientist by training, Norman is the first to admit he’s always been a maker of things.

Filmed almost entirely in the garage workshops of the members of the Society, the series of films evokes an atmosphere that’s possibly uniquely British, and it transports me back to my childhood. I can almost smell the wood shavings in the last of the four films.
If I had to live without it I could, but it’s something that’s been a part of me for a very long time. I’ve always been someone who makes things. That’s what I do, it’s always been a hobby. I’m a scientist by training—professionally—life’s work. But I’ve always been a maker of things.
As well as the film series, Anne also created a newspaper. It houses the extra stories and excerpts from the interviews that didn’t make it into the films, not because they weren’t fascinating, but because they needed a different medium to express them; as an accompaniment to the film series it acts almost like a projectionist’s commentary, or a more traditional programme you’d get at a theatre.

Interviews with Model and Experimental Engineers
…some of the longer stories that my characters shared with me about specific points of their lives, or particular machines and methods didn’t make it into the films which I was pretty sad about. These were stories about machines invented under a veil of secrecy in the Soviet Union that someone had managed to build a version of, insight into a childhood with homemade toys and the reason why someone had spent their life building a particular type of locomotive. Tiny fragments of these tales made their way into the films but not in a way that did their stories justice.
I recently talked to Anne about her series of films, the newspaper, the story she was trying to tell, and the reaction to the piece both by the Society and others.

How did you get involved with the members of the Society?

I was on a bus going past Alexandra Palace in January 2012 and saw crowds of people streaming up the hill. It was more people than I’d ever seen going to Ally Pally before and a really diverse bunch of people – old, young, families etc, so I knew I had to find out what was going on. I looked it up online that night and turned out it was the London Model Engineering Exhibition. So I knew I had to go and see what was attracting such a huge bunch of people.

The next day was the last of the three-day event and it was super busy again. We wandered round people selling tools, some trade stalls selling spare parts and sheets of copper, and saw almost every engineering society in the South East showing off their wares. I’d taken my camera along and a sound kit so I did a few interviews just capturing some of the conversations I was having with people. But then we turned a corner and met SMEE. They were all wearing blue work coats – every member of the society has one – and were standing up beside their creations proudly showing them off, answering questions and roping people in to make a pulley tool on a small lathe they had.

Why did you decide to spend a year following them around, what made their story interesting to you?

A  short film from the interviews of that day.
On that day, a lot of other people’s creations were incredible displays of ingenuity but you weren’t allowed to touch them. SMEE didn’t really mind about all that. They encouraged everyone to pick stuff up, see how it was made and just generally be inquisitive. I knew then that this was a fascinating bunch of people that I wanted to know more about. 

I made a short film from the interviews I shot on the day–it’s not a proper documentary, more a sort of film sketch as a tool for exploring some of the conversations I had and grouping them into themes. But that definitely made me want to capture this field in more detail.

Can you see any parallels between them, and today’s hacker and maker spaces?

Definitely. In a way, SMEE are like a hackspace – they have a workshop and a headquarters building where they meet regularly. I guess the difference is that having been around over a hundred years means they have a few more traditions and are more traditionally organised than a hack space – they have a council and a Chairman for example. But the sentiment is the same. They’re a community united by a passion for making things. When I’ve been at SMEE on their workshop evenings, there’s one guy who travels over 2 hours each way just to use the workshop for an hour or two surrounded by fellow members. That fascinates me. I kept asking him why he bothered, why he didn’t use his workshop at home. And all he said was, it’s just not the same.

SMEE are really into CNC machining and are interested in 3D printing and other modern techniques too. In the Society film, Norman himself recognises that although there’ll always be people who think if you don’t make everything yourself with files and hammers you’re not doing it right, there’s another set of people who think that 3D printing is the future and CNC machines mean they can be more ambitious with their projects. And I think that’s what I love most about SMEE. They’re not preoccupied with nostalgia, they just happen to have a really rich heritage. What they do is make things.

Do you think the current films reflect the Society as a whole, or did you focus on a single thread of their story?

When I started out, I wanted to make just one film and I began filming and finding people to focus on with that in mind. But as time went on I realised that one film wouldn’t capture the essence of what makes these people who they are. One film would have skipped over little moments like the way Norman sees a ripple pattern in a piece of wood and the way Mike assembles all the little bits of his rail motor. For me, these bits are really important. It’s the power of film to show not just tell. And it reflects the texture of making things, the sounds and the look and the feel of materials. So, if anything, that was the way I approached the collection but it wasn’t really intentional, it just sort of ended up that those were the things that rose to the surface.

There are four films—an introduction to the Society, the Problem Solver, the Model Engineer and the Woodworker. Will there be more?

I did want to make sure I had a sufficient variety of approaches to craft but that wasn’t hard to find at SMEE. I think woodworking, model engineering and experimental engineering reflect a broad range of the types of craft SMEE members engage in but by no means all of them. SMEE have almost 500 members all over the world so I’d love to continue making more.

What do you think the message of the series is, what story were you trying to tell with the films?

If anything, it’s that we’re all makers of things. Sounds a bit cliched but the title The Makers of Things just came from something Norman said. He said that even when he was 14 and had a shed in his parents’ garden he made sawdust. I like the idea that whatever your discipline, your chosen material or intention, you can make stuff. 

What do the members of the Society think of your series? Have they commented?

Several of them have seen them and have told me they really liked them. I think for them they’ve never really had the chance to see a real outside perspective on what they do. So I’m very pleased they see them as a genuine reflection of their hobby and the characters involved. I’m doing a talk at their next monthly meeting and will be showing the films to the full Society then.

What other reactions to the series have you had? Have any surprised you?

I’m been really chuffed by the reaction online and from family/friends at a screening I had last weekend. Everyone has said they liked the intimacy of the films, that they actually feel they’ve been offered a glimpse into people’s lives. Making stuff is a very personal thing and usually what we see of how other people approach it is a nicely composed photo of their desk all neat and tidy which is not how real life works. People have said they like that the collection feels very real and meaningful. What the people in the film are sharing is a lifetime of making and all the detail, emotion and hard work that comes with that. I’m really pleased people have picked up on that.

Switching gears then, what equipment did you use to shot the series?

The whole series was shot on a Canon EOS 7D with a range of prime lenses, with external radio mics for interviews.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Leaving the ivory tower

I've been planning to leave academia for some time, but kept on putting it off. Unlike the U.S. where tenure is a thing pursued vigorously by the great and the good, here in the U.K. at least it has long gone to dust. But my job was as permanent as they get, and actually left me a lot of time to do a lot of other things outside it that interested me...

Looking out over the Pacific
However recently I took a look around and discovered that everything that was getting me up in the morning had nothing to do with my day job, and everything to do with what I was doing outside it. That just isn't any way to live. So, I've just pushed the big red switch. I now have a long rope and will be using it to leave the ivory tower real soon, my last day here at the University of Exeter is later this week, Thursday the 4th of April.

I was originally planning to take a couple of months off to look around, mainly because I'm in the fortunate position that I can do that, and such opportunities shouldn't be wasted. However some Tesla-driving individuals said "Yes!" and I've now working on something that's going to swallow my life for the next couple of months.

However, I'm not complaining, it's just the sort of getting out of bed project that I'm quitting academia to do in the first place. You'll be hearing more about it shortly, just as soon as I can talk about it...

In the short to medium term I'm planning on staying freelance, and doing consulting, contracting, writing or anything else that'll pay the bills and keep the wolves from the door. Although I'm not opposed to the idea of joining a (large) company, I've just spent thirteen years working for someone else, it'll be nice to work for myself for a while. Or at least be nearer the top of the tree, as you can generally see the rest of the forest much better from there. That said, it doesn't mean I'm not open to offers; they'd just have to be interesting offers.

So, while I've got a large number of things that might come off; I'm interested in work. Preferably work of substance, but beggars can't be choosers.

I've done a number of (some quite infamous) things with iOS, and have a lot of experience on the app side of things. I have done a number of things that are now generally being lumped into the "Big Data" camp. While I'm not a Hadoop and NoSQL guy, I've done some interesting work with machine learning and agent architectures, mostly to do with distributed sensor networks. I'm a hardware guy, or at least I'm an Arduino guy, and have done a number of other things to do with that increasingly ubiquitous hardware platform.

I like playing with mobile platforms, hardware, software, sensors, 3D printers and data visualisation. Or preferably all of the above at the same time, a good example of this is the work on the Data Sensing Lab I've been doing for O'Reilly.

Basically I'm an emerging technology guy. If it's new and a lot of people know nothing about it, I probably know something or am learning about it right now. Then I generally write a book about it and move on to the next emerging technology. I like being on the cutting edge. It's interesting out here. Oh yes, I also helped discover the most distant astronomical object yet found; a gamma-ray burster at a redshift of 8.2. However I'm not so sure that's a useful skill outside of the ivory tower.

In summary then; I write, I code, I speak and am always willing to offer advice on things I know about.

Update: It has just been pointed out to me that I foresaw my own exit from academia some seven or eight years ago, back when I was still having fun in my day job, " what happens when I stop having fun? I'll probably have to sit down and make enough license plates so I don't have to worry about that stuff again."

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Distributed Network Data

My latest book, my first not talking about iOS and writing code for the iPhone and iPad, just went to press. It's called Distributed Network Data and it's hardware hacking for Data Scientists. It's the book of the +Data Sensing Lab and arrives just in time for this year's +O'Reilly Strata in Santa Clara, which starts tomorrow.

This book is intended for data scientists who want to learn how to work with external hardware. It assumes some basic computing and programming knowledge, but no real expert knowledge is assumed. From there the book walks you through build your own distributed sensor network to collect, analyse, and visualise real-time data about our environment.

If you're a data scientist, or a visualisation person, interested in getting started with hardware and collecting your own data, this is the book for you. You can use the code AUTHD to get 40% off print books, 50% on ebooks and videos when you buy the book directly from O'Reilly.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Making money faster than you can type

The 3Doodler is a 3D printer, but it's a pen. This takes 3D printing and turns it on its head...

In fact the 3Doodler rejects quite a lot of what most people would consider necessary for it to be called a 3D printer. There is no three axis control, there is in fact no software, you can't download a design and print an object, it strips 3D printing back to basics.
What there is, what it allows you to do, is make things. This is the history of printing going in reverse, it's as if Gutenberg's press was invented first, and then somebody came along afterwards and invented the fountain pen.

While it looks simple they've obviously overcome some serious technological difficulties to get it working. One of the things that's hard to do on 3D printers, at least hard to do well, is unsupported structures.
As anyone that owns a 3D printer will tell you, the cooling time for the plastic as it leaves the print head is crucial to allow you to print unsupported structures. Too hot and it doesn't work, the structure sags and runs, too cold and it just plain doesn't work at all. From their videos they seem to have cracked the problem, building a free standing structure seems to be easy and well within the capabilities of the pen.
It also takes 3mm ABS and PLA as its “ink,” the same stuff used by most hobbyist 3D printers. I've got spools of this stuff hanging around my house which I use in my own printer. But unlike my printer, which cost just under a thousand dollars, the 3Doodler costs just $75.
It doesn't have the same capabilities, but that's the difference between a printing press and a pen. It has different capabilities, ones a "normal" 3D printer doesn't have. It's not a cheap alternative, it's a different thing entirely.
I'm currently watching the 3Doodler climb towards their first million dollars on Kickstarter, and I when I say their first million I mean that, they have over 30 days to go on their campaign which has today has gone viral and made them the best part of that million. This is the next Pebble. The next Kickstarter success story.
They've tapped into a previously untappable market; people that wanted a 3D printer but couldn't afford one, and people that see the obvious potential of a fountain pen over a printing press, for both art and engineering.
The guys behind the 3Doodler made $60,000 dollars while I wrote this post, my hat is off to them. Because it's not often someone comes up with an idea this good.
I'm going to be writing a series of posts on hardware startups for the Radar over the course of the next few months, and rest assured I'll come back to the 3Doodler. But not until  they can type faster than they can make money.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The black rectangle won't last as long as the beige box

It looks like putting #Linux on #Microsoft's new #Surface  is going to be an up hill struggle. I was actually expecting that...

The era of the commodity beige box is coming to an end, and the days of the general purpose computer are almost over. Most people never needed or wanted a general purpose computer, and they're going to be happy with more limited devices optimised for a single, or a few, purposes. So long as those devices just work.

As a scientist I've benefited from being able to take mass produced PCs and be able to put them on desks very cheaply. The amount of compute power we've had access to as a result meant that money that would otherwise have been spent on expensive high end workstations could be spent elsewhere.

Those of us that need general purpose computing; designers, developers, scientists, are going to have to go out and buy increasingly expensive niche machines, effectively old-fashioned workstations. High end computing platforms that the general population just don't need on their desk or in their pocket.

The fact you can't install #Linux  on the new #Surface  is just the start of what is going to be an increasingly obvious trend. It's just a symptom. The things that are open and the things that are closed are changing. Time to wake up and realise that. Being able to install #Linux  on your PC isn't important any more.

I think a lot of the web and mobile people are making the same mistake today that Nokia made five years ago, Nokia was all about the hardware and wasn't watching the software hard enough...

Today people are all about the software and aren't watching the hardware hard enough. Today's mobile phone, the black rectangle with, at most, a single button is a transition device. Don't get too comfortable with it, and don't stop thinking about innovation. Because the black rectangle won't last as long as the beige box.