Monday, January 24, 2005

Hitchhiker's Wikipedia - Thick or thin client?

I recently installed Tomeraider3, an e-Book reader that has a remarkably good indexing system. It has been around since 1996, originally developed for EPOC operating system in the Psion Series of PDAs, later coded for other PDAs such as PalmOS and Pocket PC.

Over on Wikipedia, whose data is stored in an SQL database (MySQL as it happens), you find that there are snapshots of the main textual content for the entire database, generated in Tomeraider2 format targeting different devices using scripts by Erik Zachte. I downloaded the English language snapshot from 30 Dec 2004 for Pocket PC, about 500MB, compressed(!) It doesn't run in Tomeraider3, but you can read it into the Windows desktop client and do a conversion. It requires a lot of crunching, though - I ran it overnight on a fairly new PC with lots of RAM and in the morning it reported that it had taken about 7 hours to do the compilation. For convenience you can buy CDs at modest cost.

It took about another half an hour or so to copy the .tr3 file across to my SD card, filling about half of its 1GB capacity. Then I tapped on it, expecting complaints about errors, but it just worked and very fast too!

It soon passed the acid test of usability down in the department's tea room. We were chatting about films and Harry Potter cropped up. I'm one of the seemingly few people who is not au fait, having not gone much beyond my initial experience of watching the first adventure on video dubbed into Thai on a coach tour. When I started to peruse Wikiepedia to get a clue, I was challenged to look up 'Azkaban'. Tap.. tap.. tap.. and within a few seconds I was reading out Wikipedia's entry on this prison, well before the topic of conversation had moved on. Since then I find myself carrying the Ipaq around with me a lot more.

It may not quite be the world in a grain of sand, but having the text of the world's largest encyclopaedia on an SD card is certainly filling people with wonder. I had mentioned Wikipedia as contained within OxPDA as a possibility, but now having seen it in action it makes me really wonder about its educational potential. As a first point of reference on all kinds of knowledge it is a real boon and now that it is pocketable, it is a veritable Hitchhiker's Wikipedia.

Yet very soon I was challenged with the assertion: "All pocket devices will be wireless very soon so you won't need to store the encyclopaedia on a card on the PDA itself." It prompts me to wonder again about whether PDAs should be thick clients or thin?

High street models are invariably subject to inflationary tendencies - faster processor, more memory, richer operating system and so on. However, I think we've reached the stage where the specs are already good enough to consider taking a different approach in which all the processing power goes into one kind of application - a remote terminal, i.e. a thin client. The kind of terminal I have in mind is an X term.

It is far from an original thought and there are already ways of doing this as I have described a little with respect to the Jornada 720, with e.g. NoMachine offering an experimental client to support its client-server setup that is built around a very efficient alternative to the X protocol .

As the quality of TFT displays now mean that you can get a clear VGA display on a 4" diagonal, sufficient for many windowing applications, it opens up all the applications that you might care to make available. For instance, you could have a classroom with a server making available different applications to different clients, depending upon a student's level of progress. Much easier that engaging in the art of development for mobile computers and all its compatibility issues.

However, my experiences with Wikipedia make me feel that a thin client alone is not optimal. On my PDA I can find entries very fast every time, whereas when I connect to Wikipedia, even across a fast link, there can be quite a lag as the server is usually heavily loaded. And although network connectivity is ever-improving at the moment, it will be quite a while before it is dependable wherever you travel.

So for the moment, although I'll keep an eye open on thin client developments, the processors on my PDAs will be busy as ever with a bundle of apps reading from fat memory cards.

However, it also makes me wonder about gazing into a crystal ball...

- Paul


Blogger David said...

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to read this Paul. You may remember the PDA presentation I took part in last week. I will certainly take a deeper look at Wikipedia and its potential for use on my PDA.

My jury is out on which is the most powerful (Web v Wikip) and speedy though as I have had little problem finding 'stuff' via IE and Google.

Good luck - keep it up.

David Sugden

10 April 2005 at 02:58  

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