Terminals are not enough (personal edition)

December 4, 2016

Over the years I've used any number of things at home to get access to the outside world, and as you'd expect I've developed some opinions on the whole area (to go with my sysadmin-side opinions). Because I love giving names to things despite being not very good at it, I'm going to divide all of this into four levels:

  • pure terminals not only depend completely on the Internet (or the outside world in general) but they restrict you to accessing it via a fixed sort of connection. The canonical terminal is a (dumb) serial terminal, where you type characters to the remote end and that's it. Chromebooks are sort of modern examples of this, at least in the version of them where you're restricted to the web and SSH.

  • terminals with local apps are still entirely dependent on the Internet (if your Internet connection goes away, they're paperweights), but you can run a wide variety of local clients to talk to things over the Internet in various ways. While you might think that this is not a big change from pure terminals, a terminal with local apps at least feels a bunch nicer and is often much more responsive and a richer experience.

    (Chromebooks with Android apps are going to mostly fall into this category.)

  • devices with local data let you have data locally so that you can still read something, listen to music, look at your notes, consult maps, or whatever when you're completely disconnected from the Internet. It's better than nothing, but you're mostly or entirely going to be a passive consumer of things while disconnected.

    My smartphone is essentially in this category today, because I saved a few free books and other things for offline use just in case (and why not), and of course people put music collections on them.

  • computers with local workspaces allow you to actively and more or less fully work when disconnected from the Internet. You don't just have local data and local storage, you have the tools you need to work on it much as you would if the Internet was available. You'll probably miss the Internet, but it's possible to be productive and get interesting things done; you can write code or blog entries or the like in a full-featured environment.

These levels are points on a continuum, especially now that so many resources even for things like programming are found online (eg, documentation). And certainly nowadays which level something goes in depends partly on how you use it, although some usages are more natural than others on various devices.

(An iPhone is an example of this. In theory you can probably use one at all levels, even up to the local workspaces level for certain sorts of work. But in practice it seems that it's mostly designed for something in the area between terminal with local apps and device with local data. If you use an iPhone without apps, you're missing out; if you try to do a lot of active work instead of passive consumption while totally disconnected, you're probably at least a bit out of the mainstream and not all apps will readily support that.)

For home use, I'm no longer willing to be completely dependent on the Internet and, while the local data approach is okay in a pinch it's not what I want for my primary home machine. Even if I only rarely use the possibility of working locally when the Internet is completely out, I know myself and I'm much happier when I know it's at least a possibility.

In addition, there are times that I deliberately choose to do some work locally even when the Internet is available. Sometimes this is because of interface issues covered last time around but sometimes this is for other reasons; I just feel like doing things locally, or working locally makes a convenient way to separate experiments from upstream work, or I'm (only) going to use the results locally as private versions of apps like my syndication feed reader.

(Of course, I wouldn't buy any sort of laptop as my primary home machine, Chromebook or otherwise, because I value a good display, a good keyboard, and a good mouse much more than I value portability. As a secondary machine for taking places and using in emergencies if the main home machine explodes, Chromebooks have the useful property of being inexpensive, and in an emergency it's true that much of what I care about in day to day usage is on the Internet. But if money was not a consideration, even my 'carry places and use in emergencies' laptop would be in the full local workspace category and so probably not a Chromebook.)


Comments on this page:

It's perfectly possible to use a laptop as your main machine with a nice display, keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals. Until a few years ago, I was using a Macbook Pro as my main machine, hauling it back and forth every work day, with the same keyboard and mouse (trackball) at home and at work. I eventually got tired of carrying it back and forth, and switched to a desktop Mac at work, and recently to a retina iMac, and just upgraded our home machine to a 27" iMac. But my partner is still using her MBP as her main machine, with a 4K monitor, keyboard, and trackpad at work and at home.

I can't see any reason you wouldn't be able to do the same with a Windows or even Linux laptop, if you wanted.

(The laptop started becoming less important when I gave in and bought an iPad, which not only worked for 99% of the things I typically did with the laptop at home, but turned out to do a bunch of other things I hadn't seen a need for before.)

By cks at 2016-12-10 01:04:58:

I decided to scribble down my reaction and thoughts on this for my specific situation (or some of them, at least) in an actual entry, WhyNotLaptopMainMachine. It focuses on the negatives I currently see here, rather than the possible positives, because that's my gut's current irrational take.

(As a general thing for people to consider, I certainly expect that it's an excellent fit for some people. I'm a fairly far outlier in usage and situation and so on.)

Written on 04 December 2016.
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