Personal servers have always existed in some form or another. What happened recently though is a revolution in this space: the commodification of the personal server. Interestingly enough this came out of a completely new kind of platform: the personal Bitcoin node.
Personal servers used to be tinkerers’ playgrounds: repurposing old computers, installing Linux and a mail server… a media server… building your own NAS.
Personal Bitcoin nodes on the other hand started as very specific appliances but quickly became the next wave of personal servers: incredibly easy to set up yet extensible through their app stores - a well-known paradigm by now thanks to Apple.
While some, like RaspiBlitz, are still pretty much command line driven, others, like Umbrel, are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum keeping the command line entirely out of sight. This is great for attracting new users to the idea of a personal server in general and indirectly to that of a Bitcoin node, or the other way around, but it also has some drawbacks.
Tinkerers drive progress
We are where we are because of tinkerers. Both as an industry and as a society. Progress is driven by tinkerers and then the money comes in, not the other way around.
It is incredibly hard to innovate by just throwing money at a problem.
All the money in the world would not be enough to build Linux, the Internet, Bitcoin or anything groundbreaking in computing if it wasn’t for passionate programmers that simply love building things.
And who are these programmers? They are tinkerers and builders at heart that, while using a computer, somehow discovered that programming is even a thing. They might have never found out and spent all their creativity elsewhere: whether in video games or in wood working. Not that there’s anything wrong with wood working in particular, but if we want to advance this particular industry, we better optimize the conversion rate from consumer to creator.
The fine line
There is a fine line between being sufficiently user-friendly to attract people that would not use your platform otherwise and being sufficiently open to encourage tinkering.
The iPhone or the Mac are obviously user-friendly but to the extreme that they are dumbing down their own audience. I’m not saying you can’t tinker with a Mac. It (still) has a terminal and can (still) run random binaries. But what is the rate of actively converting users into builders?
It’s just a game of numbers after all
How many Mac users will click the Terminal icon by mistake or curiosity? How many of these will realize that they have entered another world they could spend time exploring rather than think they “broke the computer” and restart? Could we increase the first number in some simple way without making the platform too dangerous or scary for total noobs? Perhaps by optimizing where the Terminal icon is placed and how it is advertised. Or by having it display some helpful text once it is opened; perhaps a small tutorial with some gamification aspects to keep people interested?