by Bernard Golden

Open Source Special Purpose Appliances

Oct 23, 20063 mins

While attending the GOSCON conference a week or so ago (read my post on can-do open source IT organizations that I learned about at GOSCON here), I got interviewed for a podcast. I’ve done a number of podcasts in the past, and they’ve always seemed really complicated from a technical perspective. There’s the person interviewing me, and a few feet away is a technician twiddling with dials and so forth, and we spend five or ten minutes saying “test test” until he or she gives a thumbs-up to commence the discussion. I thought that’s how podcasts work.

At GOSCON, however, it was pretty different. The interviewer sat me down, gave me a handheld mike, and started asking me questions immediately. Hmmm…that was different. 

At the end of the conference, I was doing some work in the interview room, and a guy came by to pack up the equipment. Since my podcasting experience was so different, I asked him about his company’s product (it comes from a cleverly-named company called “boxpopuli,” a play on the Latin Vox Populi, or “voice of the people”). 

I asked him how it works, and it turned out to be pretty cool. It’s a standalone mini-ITX form factor computer outfitted with a P4 motherboard and an 80 gig drive, running Ubuntu Linux and a bunch of other open source software (and some closed source as well, I think, since it encodes to mp3 format), all designed to make creating podcasts dead simple.

First, it’s always on and ready to record. You start it going by inserting a thumbdrive containing your personal configuration. Once the thumbdrive is in, you’re ready to record. After the podcast is recorded, you pull out the thumbdrive. The podcast is recorded to the internal drive, ready for retrieval.

But what’s really cool is that if you’ve set your configuration and the box has Internet connectivity, it will upload the podcast immediately to your selected web server. You can literally have podcasts up on your site within five minutes of completing the interview. How cool is that?

boxpopuli is aiming the machine at non-technical users that want to record podcasts. The company has done work with Universities that want to enable domain-specific webcasts (e.g., archeology) without imposing the need for technical personnel. I believe boxpopuli also offer an associated service which takes care of storing uploads, etc.

It strikes me that this product is a great example of what open source enables. The price can be kept low due to the use of open source, which avoids license fees and also provides lots of useful applications and scripting languages. The customers for this product don’t really think of themselves as IT people creating a podcasting capability, but instead think of this like someone buying a consumer electronics device, much like you’d buy something from your local electronics superstore.

Frankly, once you’ve experienced podcasting the easy way, I don’t know why you’d stick with the old way. As hardware prices continue to plummet, I think we’ll see lots more open source-based special-purpose computers masquerading as appliances.