Monday, July 07, 2008

Wireless internet on trains and Linux

Listening to Morning Edition today, and I heard about a plan to put really fast Wi-Fi on the BART trains in San Francisco. It sounds really cool, and makes me really want: commuter trains in SE Michigan ... with Wi-Fi. But I digress (as per usual).

One of the limitations for the Wi-Fi system on commuter trains is the time it takes for people to get out their devices and boot them up (and the shut-down, put-away time, too) versus the amount of time that the commuter spends on the train. A solution offered on the show was the abilities of smart phones (like the iPhone) to link up to wireless networks, and remain virtually "always" on. One other solution, as I have been thinking about this, is to have a computer with a very fast boot-up time; one running some sort of Linux OS.

Perhaps the people working on a Linux OS in the Bay Area (or anywhere else that on-train Wi-Fi shows up) might use this as a selling point: a quick boot-up onto a Linux OS via USB or CD to allow for internet surfing on the train. I know already that many Linux OS can do the quick boot-up, but I think the major seller (at least in the Bay Area if BART Wi-Fi takes off) is the many benefits of using it on the train (fast boot-up, OS stability, low-level risk for viruses, etc), especially if someone out there makes an OS that is optimized to take advantage of the BART Wi-Fi system. And once a person is hooked on Linux due to using it on the twice-daily commute, the possibility of using Linux elsewhere - coffee shops, bookstores, in the park, etc. - increases.

Although the focus of the company interviewed on the show was in its installation of Wi-Fi on BART, the immediate connection I make with the concept of "commuter trains" out here (where there are none, really) is with AmTrak. Yes, they aren't really "commuter" trains anywhere, except in the northeast, but with increased ridership on AmTrak over the past number of  years, with the infrastructure already in place for plugging in computers, the number of potential customers on a single, multi-hour train ride is quite high. Whether the company interviewed on the show (or other companies) are already trying to ride the AmTrak wagon, I don't know, but when you have a captive audience which may well use your product sitting in place for several hours, I can't see any obvious reason not to try and capture them. ("Capture" a "captive" audience seems redundant, but what-the-hey.) Of course, as a pseudo-Federal organization/company, doing business with AmTrak may itself prove to have nightmares, but I would have to say that I would not mind in the slightest to being able to get online during the several-hour trips to Chicago and back again.

I'm not yet "Hooked on Linux", but part of that is due to a lack of need on my part - I have three computers at work, all of them maintained by highly competent IT staff - and a lack of compatibility with certain crucial software packages - ArcGIS, SPSS, HEC-RAS, etc. However, I've been looking to get a university-used laptop and use that one as my main "travel" computer, running Linux. (I'm really tempted by this option, especially when I know that DHS is searching - sometime siezing - people's computers at international borders. Having a fast boot-up second-hand refurbished Linux laptop will help with getting through customs, while also making a computer confiscation less painful - I hope - than losing my "main" laptop computer.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The funding logistics may be what's holding it up, but putting Wifi on long-distance commuter rail (ie, NJTransit, or out in Cali something like Caltrain) would solve some of these concerns about time people spend on the train.

But on the other hand, demand for such service may be lower than one first thinks. I expect that many such commuters already have blackberries, cel or satellite connections, etc.