The Quake III Test
If people haven't started thinking about the current crop of smartphones as computers, maybe this will help: Quake III Arena (Q3A) ported to the Android platform. If a device can run a custom port of Id Software's legendary first person shooter, surely it qualifies as a computer more than a phone.
That might sound silly, but think about it: When Quake III Arena was initially introduced, it took massive (at the time) processing power and a beefy (at the time) video card to run. We're now at the point where the computer in my pocket can run the greatest game of all time. The fact that smartphones also make phone calls is almost incidental. Phone calls are handled by just one program of many on the device.
And the semantics are important. Aside from awesome gaming goodness, seeing Q3A ported to the Android means that there's one fewer reason for many people to own a computer. Not specifically for Q3A, but just another indicator that the Android can handle a class of applications that were once associated with standard PCs and laptops. Now we've got FPS goodness on mobile devices. And with things like the iPad and various Android tablets on the way, it's important that people think about these things as computers and not as phones or entertainment appliances.
Why shouldn't we think of these as phones or appliances? Because users have grown used to the idea that phones and appliances are not meant to be modified. Users expect to be able to modify their PCs and laptops, and that's an important feature to preserve as more and more users do the bulk of their computing on next-generation machines.
As Benjamin Mako Hill points out in his "phone in my pocket" essay, "Phones represent one of the most locked-down, proprietary, and generally unfree technologies in wide distribution. The implications for software freedom and technological empowerment are dire." But, more users are going to have computers in their pocket than on their desks — so it's vitally important that we be able to extend the idea of computing to mobile devices so users can also think about the value of Software Freedom on those devices.
So my test is Quake III. If I'm talking to someone and trying to make the point that they've got a computer, I'll point out that if you can run Quake III on the device, it must qualify as a computer. Not just that specific device, or the specific game, but all devices in that class.
And Quake III has the added bonus of being open source. So it's a great study in what's possible as long as devices are open and allow modification.
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. Brockmeier is also a FLOSS advocate and participates in several projects, including GNOME as the PR team lead. You can reach Zonker at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.