Cheap as in Crap

coby_midget_pc Just over a year ago, I quipped that Acer – the world’s most successful vendor of slightly sub-par but very cheap computer hardware – didn’t have any more sub-par vendors to buy after acquiring Gateway and the dreaded Packard Bell (which I prefer to call “Taco Bell” since both offer dirt cheap products yielding unpleasant results once you’ve consumed them). This was a good thing, I thought, as gathering all the crappy vendors into a single uber-crappy vendor makes them rather easy to avoid.

However, these are tough times, when “cheap and crappy” becomes attractive to customers. As if in answer to the credit crunch, the good news is that there’s been an announcement about a new netbook that promises to be sub-$100 (well, technically $99.95 is below $100).

The bad news? It’s being made by Coby.

coby_logo If you’ve never heard of Coby, you probably don’t hang out in Chinatown, “grey market” electronic stores or Walmart. They’re a manufacturer of consumer electronics of dubious quality bearing a logo that I always found suspiciously similar to Sony’s. They’re the sort of electronics you buy when you need something decent-seeming to give away as prizes at a fundraiser or when your diet consists largely of Top Ramen. I’ve seen too many people burned by the false economy of a Coby purchase to have any faith in the company.

Still, my curiosity cannot help but be piqued. The availability of cheap, very portable, network-capable, almost-disposable computers that you’d pick up at places like discount stores, drug stores and perhaps even those kiosks in the middle of the aisles at your local shopping center is a potential game-changer for both everyday life and us developers. If you look at schoolyards and playgrounds, you’ll see that the Nintendo DS has changed kids’ recreation; what would a grown-up version like dirt-cheap netbooks do?

Here’s what can be gleaned from Inidymedia Arkansas’ article about Coby’s netbook:

  • Expected release date: March 2009
  • Expected models: PoquetMate-7” and PoquetMate-9” (“PoquetMate” is pronounced “pocket mate”), with 7- and 9-inch screens, respectively
  • Processor: Something made by Loongson

I expect that at $100, it’ll run some flavour of Linux. I wonder if it’ll be another case of “Worse is Better” and beat the OLPC at its own game. I may end up picking up one of these suckers on a lark.


The C# “Yellow Book”: Free as in Beer and Good as in Beginner’s Guide

Cover of the "C Sharp Yellow Book"

As a new Microsoftie and programmer returning to C# after a six-year absence, I have a lot of learning and re-learning ahead of me. In preparation for this, I spent the better part of an afternoon in the “Computers” section of my neighbourhood bookstore going through the C# programming books, sorting the gems from the junk. I took the “beginner’s mind” approach and looked at all the books on the shelves, regardless of the skill level they were written for, even the books that devoted whole chapters to basic concepts like looping and branching. At the very least, it would give me an idea of the current state of programming literature was like in the .NET world.

A couple of weeks later, I stumbled across the C# “Yellow Book”. It’s the standard book for first year computer science students at the University of Hull (I know of it thanks to a Black Adder episode) and written by Rob Miles, a Microsoft MVP and lecturer at that university. Each computer science student there is given a free-as-in-beer printed copy of the book, and now anyone can get a free-as-in-beer PDF copy online.

The C# Yellow Book is quite good, and can easily hold its own against some of the commercial C# books I’ve seen, which typically sell for about $35. It’s written in a clear and breezy style, explains it concepts well, has examples that actually work (I tried some out just for kicks) and often goes beyond typical beginners’ books with many asides called “Programmers’ Points” that explain good programming technique. Its 185 pages cover most of the basic C# language — and most of the example code is run in console mode except for the section near the end that covers basic Windows Forms. After finishing this book, you should have enough background material to tackle an intermediate book on C# or introductory books on .NET topics like GUI programming, ASP.NET or even game development for the PC, Xbox 360 and Zune (yeah, really, the Zune) with XNA.

I’d say that Rob has a strong incentive to make the book as good as possible because it’s the basis of a course at his university and because he can get some rather immediate feedback from its readership. If only that was true for a professor of mine back at Crazy Go Nuts University, whose Pascal programming book (it was the eighties) had terrible examples, an incomprehensible presentation and writing style and annual revisions to foil used-book sales and to force each new class to buy the latest edition. Kudos to Rob and the computer science department at Hull for giving away the course textbook for free!

If you’re a starving student looking to learn Windows programming, I’d recommend getting your hands on a copy of Rob Miles’ free-as-in-beer C# “Yellow Book” and pair it with Microsoft’s free-as-in-beer Visual C# 2008 Express Edition. Alas, I can’t point you to any free-as-in-beer computers.