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Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Windows

Software freedom does affect the end user

As a follow-up to an older post of mine (“Open Source for Non-Programmers”), I wanted to post a little bit about arbitrary limitations in software.

Thank God even Apple is now leaving behind DRM in its iTunes Music Store (Amazon has been doing so for quite a while with its MP3 store). While the music pirates were still out there pirating, my well-intentioned and law-abiding Windows- and Mac-using friends were constantly frustrated that this computer wasn’t authorized or this song wouldn’t play on that device. DRM was an artificial restriction on how many computers or devices could play a purchased song, and it wasn’t stopping music piracy. It was hurting the people who were trying to play by the rules.

Now the tech news is reporting that Microsoft (in attempt to phase out Windows XP) will release a crippled version of Windows 7 on netbooks that allows you to run only three applications at a time. So if you’re running Firefox, Thunderbird, and Pidgin already, and then you want to open up OpenOffice to write an essay for class, you have to close Firefox first (or Thunderbird or Pidgin). Will DropBox count as an app? Will ScreenPrint32? Will other tray apps? Who knows? This is a nuisance and nothing else. It is a cheap ploy to take advantage of users’ Windows addictions and coerce them into upgrading to the full version of Windows 7.

Of course, as with what happened in the case of DRM, this limitation will be an annoyance to Microsoft’s loyal customers, and it will do nothing to stop pirates. Some Windows customers will buy a netbook with crippled Windows 7 and get frustrated and just install an old copy of Windows XP on it. Others will pirate the full version of Windows 7 and install that without paying for an upgrade. And still others will get frustrated with Windows altogether and go to Android or Ubuntu Linux. (Relatively few people will actually pay for an upgrade.)

When enough people flock to Linux on netbooks, Microsoft will be forced to pull Windows XP off the shelf yet again to stave off the competition.

Linux distros have their limitations, but they aren’t arbitrarily imposed on you by the Linux developers. The limitations all come from proprietary software and hardware vendors. Know why your Broadcom wireless card won’t work on Linux? Broadcom won’t port a driver to Linux or release the driver specs to Linux developers can incorporate it into the Linux kernel. Know why there’s no Adobe Creative Suite for Linux? Adobe doesn’t think there’s enough demand for it to warrant making a port, so it won’t make one for Linux.

Want to know why you can’t run more than three apps at a time in Windows 7 on netbooks? Microsoft won’t let you unless you pay for an upgrade. That’s right. You can’t blame it on some outside vendor. Microsoft, the maker of Windows 7, is saying “We don’t care about the end user or a good user experience. We want to offer you a crippled product in the hopes you’ll pay for the full product.” This is like a car salesperson offering you a discounted car with no front wheel. To get the fourth wheel you have to pay extra. Some discount.

Software freedom isn’t just about hackers wearing out their eyes staring at screens and typing into terminals. It isn’t just about programming and getting into arguments about which text editor is better than the other. Software freedom affects end users too. Because Linux offers freedom (not just free cost), if a distro ever tried to limit you to running only three apps at a time, another distro would just take that limit right off. Or someone would create a script to break that limitation.

There are short-term freedoms and long-term freedoms. The short-term freedom to run Windows-only programs will lead to the curtailing of long-term freedoms to not be limited by what Microsoft says you can and can’t do with the software you’ve purchased.

Categories
Computers Linux

Not that hopeful ARM will save Linux on netbooks

With the recent 96% Microsoft netbook fiasco (i.e., poor excuses for tech journalism, as usual), I see a lot of smug comments from the Linux community about the upcoming ARM-powered Linux netbooks.

The argument goes something like this:

Yeah, Windows may dominate the netbooks now, but Linux will come back. Windows doesn’t run on ARM yet, and the ARM-powered netbooks will be cheap and have long battery life. If they sell netbooks for US$200 with a 15-hour battery life, then who would pick a more expensive Windows option with less battery life?

I would love Linux to succeed on netbooks, but look what has happened already? Let’s review, shall we? First, the One Laptop Per Child project introduced the idea of a very low-cost laptop for children in developing countries. Then the Classmate PC came out as a rival. Both Microsoft and Apple tried to edge their operating systems on to the OLPC laptop. What happened? Well, not only is the Sugar interface on the X0 rubbish, but OLPC even started entertaining putting Windows on its laptops, despite its earlier refusals in objection to the use of proprietary software.

Then there were all these rumors about Asus coming out with a $200 very small laptop. People got all excited. $200? Really? Wow! What happened? The Eee PC. It was a big hit! Was it $200? No. It was $400. And it had a 4 GB SSD drive. Later, they came out with a $300 version with a 2 GB SSD drive. At first people marveled at these small things and even praised the Linux interface (with very large icons) as something anyone could use. Then they realized it was some crippled version of Xandros and promptly started to replace Xandros en masse with Windows or Ubuntu (or some other Linux distribution).

Other vendors started jumping on the bandwagon, because they didn’t want to lose out in this new netbook market, so Acer, MSI, Sylvania, and HP all ended up coming out with their own versions. The prices either got higher or stayed the same (but with better specs).

And then Windows XP started appearing. Unfortunately, if you want people to actually start using Linux, preinstallation is not enough. First of all, that preinstalled version has to be preconfigured, too, and thoroughly tested. Then it has to be properly marketed. It also should be a proper Linux distribution and not a crippled one (no Linpus Lite, no customized Xandros).

Pretty soon, Linux became synonymous with enormous cartoony icons and lack of easy software installation. Windows won. That, and a few FUD stories thrown in about return rates being higher for Linux netbooks (even though that was for only MSI, not Dell or Asus), and Microsoft has basically won the battle.

And my suspicion is that it’ll win the war, too. The real problem is that OEMs are not invested in seeing Linux succeeding. If Linux is a cheap option that will get them some revenue, OEMs will use Linux. But if Windows will get them even more revenue, they’ll use Windows. And a lot of Linux users aren’t helping, either. This whole mentality of “Well, if the Windows option is better, so I’ll just buy that and install Linux myself on it” will just limit future Linux options, as executives at OEMs will just say “We tried to offer a Linux option, but even the Linux users will just buy Windows and install Linux over it themselves. What’s the point?”

Will ARM be $200? We don’t know that. Will ARM have amazing battery life that the Windows netbooks won’t compare to? We also don’t know that. Some of the more recent Windows Eee PCs boast up to 9.5 hours of battery life.

Call me cynical. Call me pessimistic. But I see ARM either falling through the cracks or Android falling through the cracks, or ARM netbooks being marketed badly or overpriced or configured badly. I will be extremely surprised if Ubuntu shows up on an ARM-powered netbook that’s US$189 with a 15-hour battery life, a comfortable keyboard, a large hard drive, a slick look, and no “We recommend Windows for home computing” at the top of the vendor page. The vendors will keep recommending Windows, and Microsoft will keep pushing Windows 7. And it’ll bring out its ARM smears and Android smears. Microsoft will go down fighting or not go down at all. I have to confess, at this point, I’m very tempted to just throw in the towel and get a Windows netbook and install Linux myself on it, even though that’ll just add to Microsoft’s bottom line and its boasts about the demise of the Linux netbook.

You vendors, you’d better come out with some cool Linux netbook soon… and don’t let Apple steal this new market away the way it did with portable audio players and the iPod.

Categories
Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Windows and Linux on netbooks… what stays on?

Right now, there’s a lot of debate among computing enthusiasts about whether Microsoft’s claim of 96% sales on netbooks is true… or meaningful. I tend to believe the percentages, but I don’t think it means what Microsoft seems to imply it means (“We’re better. People prefer us”). I do believe Windows users would rather stick with something familiar than switch to something else, especially if the two are around the same price. I also believe the Linux options on netbooks were badly marketed (and in many cases, badly implemented). It certainly doesn’t help that when you go to HP’s or Dell’s websites and try to order a Linux netbook, you’ll be told HP recommends Windows for everyday computing or Dell recommends Windows Vista Home Premium. Are you really going to tell me sales would have been the same if both the Linux and Windows pages said HP recommends Linux for everyday computing or Dell recommends Ubuntu Linux? Microsoft pays those OEMs money or cuts them deals to have those phrases plastered all over the sites, and with good reason.

Let’s see. I’m a consumer. I can go with Windows, which I’m already familiar with and which Dell recommends, or I can go with… U… bun… tu? which Dell doesn’t appear to recommend? And when I pick the Ubuntu option, Dell says I can “upgrade” to Windows (Windows is clearly better, since it’s an upgrade)? I think I’ll go with Windows. Of course. Why wouldn’t I?

So, yes, I can believe the 96%, but it doesn’t mean consumers were offered a fair choice and decided they liked Windows better and that Linux sucks. It means Microsoft strong-armed its way into the netbook marketplace, just as it always did with other markets. It’s like if we have a race and I bring my fans to the stadium and kick your fans out. Then I jam a cleat into your shin, stick gum on the bottom of your running shoes, and bat your ears just as the gun goes off. Oh, and the officials running the track meet are on my payroll. After I “win” the race, I brag to everybody that you’re slow. It doesn’t mean I’m a faster runner than you. It means I’m a bully and a cheat.

I have to confess I’m even tempted to get a Windows netbook myself, even though I’ve promised myself I won’t buy any more Microsoft products, even if I’m just planning to install Linux right over it. Why? Look at the selection out there! I’ve checked NewEgg, Amazon, just about every vendor I can find, and the Linux selections keep getting slimmer and slimmer. And they also tend to be the older models. If I want to get the best netbook out there right now (in terms of hardware specifications and battery life), it’s about US$349 from Asus and runs Windows XP—it’s one of the newer Eee PCs. If I want to get the best Linux netbook available right now, it’s about US$500 from HP and doesn’t even have a third USB port or VGA out.

The most popular Linux netbook options out run Linpus Linux Lite (crippled Fedora) and a specialized (i.e., crippled) Xandros Linux. The Dell Mini 9 looks okay and gets decent reviews but doesn’t have a hard drive bigger than 16 GB. And the HP Mini Mie also looks great but is really expensive when spec’ed out and still hasn’t fully ironed out its Ubuntu implementation (even though their new interface for Ubuntu looks pretty).

Vendors, are you listening to me? If you can offer the following, I can guarantee you your Linux sales will be gangbusters:

  • Stop recommending Windows on your Linux netbook pages.
  • Offer a Linux netbook under US$400 with 7 or 8 hours of battery life, an actual hard drive with a lot of space, 3 USB ports, a 92%-95%-sized keyboard, and VGA out.
  • Use a Ubuntu variant but make sure the interface is useful and the video playback isn’t choppy

As long as the Linux options are crippled (either on the hardware or software fronts), then, yes, people will keep buying Windows netbooks. Some people may buy the Windows netbooks just to install Linux on them, but if Windows is either the only option, the cheapest option, the option with the best hardware features, or all three of the above, then Windows will continue to outsell Linux on the netbook front.

I’ll close with some excerpts from Amazon reviews:

Asus doesn’t offer the 1000HA with Linux. I don’t know what they’re thinking here. I’m forced to buy yet another Windows license that will never be used

I loaded Ubuntu Linux 8.10 to have a dual-boot system and I must say it runs Linux very well — no problems on the Linux side.

I bought this Windows XP model, just because there is no Linux equivalent of Eee PC 1000HA on sale(Asus, are you listening?).

Installed Easy Peasy linux, based… right out of the box. I did manage to hose windows xp, which is fine, since I’m not interested in running it

Linux was actually faster, and easier to set up (more plug and play, and no questions to answer). It started up each time much faster

I was primarily looking for a netbook with some form of linux installed on it, but I liked the size and battery life of this one so I went ahead and bought it.

I love my Eee PC 701. At some point I want to upgrade it, and I hope at that time there’ll be some decent Linux options out there.

Categories
Computers Linux Ubuntu

Linux is a Windows operating system? HP…?

I’ve been fascinated by HP’s line of netbooks ever since I saw the phrase “92% keyboard,” but the reviews of the HP Mini-Note have been mixed, and the most recent reviews of the HP Mini MI indicate they’ve based it on Ubuntu but disabled the terminal. There’s probably a way to re-activate the terminal. Still, what’s the point of disabling it? Mac OS X has had a terminal for years. It doesn’t mean Mac users have to use the terminal. It’s just there for the people who want it.

In any case, I’m not actually in a position to buy a new netbook (my old Eee PC is less than a year old). I like to pretend, though, so I walked through the process of customizing the new HP Mini MI, and I came across this (click for a larger image with the full context):
Uh, that’s a Windows logo there, except they’re saying it’s Linux. It’s one thing to hide the typical Linux interface with a slick internet-media interface or even to disable the terminal, but tricking Windows users into thinking Linux is Windows? Even Mac has the weird split square smiley face or the Apple logo. Linux can’t even get a tux penguin or the Ubuntu logo?

“Progress” always has to happen in small steps at first, I guess.

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Asus Eee PC Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Would Apple’s netbook be the next iPod?

I remember back in 2003 when only a handful of early adopters in America were buying portable audio players. If I’m recalling correctly, some of the big players at the time were RCA and Creative, among others. Once 2004 rolled around and the 3rd-generation iPods came out, suddenly “everyone” I knew had an iPod. Soon, even armed with my Sandisk player, I had unknowing friends call my portable audio player an iPod. The iPod took over a growing trend and made itself a virtual monopoly in portable media devices.

In recent years, phones have been getting more internet-connected. Blackberries have been the standard for business travellers, but most everyday folks have had crappy no-name web browsers in their phones that can do only some very basic tasks. Suddenly, the iPhone came along, and now… well, not nearly “everyone” but it’s getting close to half of the people I know are getting iPhones or planning to get an iPhone when they can afford it. I had high hopes for the Google phone or the Blackberry Storm; however, all the reviews I’ve read of them have been mixed and make it sound as if the iPhone, despite its own flaws, cannot be beat for sex appeal to the masses.

Now we have these netbooks that are “popular” in the sense that early adopters are excited about them, but really very few people I know have netbooks let alone know of their existence. I bought an Eee PC 701, and I still love it but, like many netbook owners, know that the netbook has not reached its full potential. Some Linux users are optimistic, since most netbooks come with a Linux-preinstalled option, that netbooks could be the key to a Linux-for-home-user revolution of sorts. If that’s to happen, OEMs have to wake up and start making a netbook that is unreservedly the best. I’ve read literally hundreds of reviews of various netbooks, and with every review, there’s something seriously wrong. Some key is placed in the wrong place. The keyboard is too small. The sound is tinny. The processor is too slow. The battery life is too short. The Linux distribution it comes with is crippled.

Why is it so difficult? Really. If an OEM (Dell, HP, Acer, Asus, etc.) came out with a netbook that had these characteristics, I guarantee it’d blow the sales of the other netbooks out of the water:

  • 92%-sized keyboard with important keys in the right places
  • No weird side buttons for the touchpad
  • Nice aluminum casing, no cheap plastic
  • Sleeps when you close the lid, wakes when you open the lid
  • Ubuntu-based Linux that takes advantage of the full Ubuntu repositories
  • “Easy” interface that can easily (meaning a box that checked or unchecked, ticked or unticked) be changed to a more typical “advanced” interface
  • 2- or 3-second boot time
  • Definitely cheaper than the corresponding Windows option
  • Battery life of longer than 4 hours
  • Kernel supports 2 GB of RAM without user modification
  • Ships quickly, no extended delays

Why is that so hard to find? Why does Dell’s Mini come with some weird architecture that isn’t compatible with the regular x86 .deb packages? Why does HP’s Mini-Note use a Via processor? Why does any netbook run with a crippled version of Xandros or with Linpus Linux? Trust me, OEMs, for your own financial good, fix these problems quickly and come up with an all-around great product, not just a sufficiently-good-for-early-adopters product.

If the rumors I’m reading are true and Apple may enter the netbook market soon, this could be another iPod coup. I don’t agree with all the design decisions Apple makes. In fact, I actually am opposed to Apple’s whole approach to user interfaces. I cannot deny, however, that Apple thinks out its decisions and tries to create what they consider a good user experience. And they know how to make their products sexy. See, I don’t mind having an ugly MP3 player that also has a radio, has a really long battery life, and costs half the price of an iPod. But I’m not most people. Most people would much rather have a sleek iPod that costs more, has a cool scroll wheel, and works with iTunes.

I’d love to see Linux get some real success among home users, but if there’s not a Linux netbook that I can unreservedly recommend to friends and family before Apple comes out with one, I’m afraid Linux may miss the boat on this one. Or, even if Apple doesn’t come out with a netbook exactly, if the current line of netbooks stays flawed, netbooks themselves may die out, and the iPhone may take over yet another niche.

Categories
Asus Eee PC Linux Ubuntu

Should I trade my Eee PC 701 for a Dell Inspiron 901

I saw Leaked: Dell Inspiron 910 (Mini Note) Specs and Release Date today and I’m intrigued, but I’m not excited yet.

I tend to be pretty cautious about computer purchases. I’ve heard rumors that the base model is supposed to be US$299, but I’m not sure what specs that’ll be. By the time you jack up the specs to be something reasonable, it may be over US$600, which I’m not willing to shell out.

I also find it odd that a couple of months ago, Dell hinted at the netbooks being announced in August. It’s almost the end of August now and it’s still just “leaked… specs” a few days before the supposed release date (August 22). If Dell is releasing the netbooks on August 22, shouldn’t they have released the full specs and pricing (not just “leads” and speculation) a lot earlier?

Well, I’m curious to see how this all turns out. I love my Eee, but I don’t love its Ubuntu-unfriendliness (I don’t think I can go back to Xandros at this point). If the Dell Inspiron 901s are priced reasonably, get good reviews, and come preinstalled with a Ubuntu version that boots up within seconds, then I may just regift my Eee to a friend who doesn’t mind Xandros and who also travels a lot.

Bring it on, Dell! Let’s see what you got.

Categories
Asus Eee PC

Is the Eee PC for you?

If you read as many reviews of the Eee PC as I’ve read, you’ll know that many of the negative reviews come from people who mistake the Eee for a notebook or laptop. Granted, it looks like a laptop (albeit one hit by a shrink-ray) and does a lot of things a laptop does, but it is not a laptop. People are calling it a subnotebook, a netbook, or UMPC (ultra-mobile PC) replacement. Who knows what name will stick? But this isn’t a total computer replacement any more than your cell phone is (think iPhone and not Macbook).

I was able to replace my desktop computer with an Eee, because I also happen to share a household with my wife, who has a regular laptop (a Macbook Pro), so when I wanted to give a CD mix to a friend, I burned it on my wife’s Macbook Pro (the Eee has no optical drive). The screen on the Eee is tiny—you won’t be doing any heavy graphics editing on it.

The Eee is an internet appliance that also happens to do a few non-internet-related things as well (it has a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a sound recording program, and a music organizer). Mainly, though, it’s great for browsing the internet, emailing friends, and Skyping (I just yesterday tried out video Skype on it, and the webcam and microphone work quite well). There is the occasional website I have to do some side-scrolling with (using the Right arrow key), and if you want to watch YouTube videos, you may want to use Firefox in fullscreen mode (press F11 to toggle back and forth), but it’s a nifty little appliance I’ll think nothing of toting around.

It’s actually made doing laundry bearable (I love reading books in the bathroom or on the bus, but for some reason not while doing the wash), and I’m looking forward to taking it on the plane with me when I visit my parents for Christmas—I won’t have to worry about it weighing down my backpack or being too much trouble to take out for the security check at the airport.

If you find yourself in coffee shops using wireless to blog or check out the latest news feeds and are tired of hauling your 15″ or 17″ laptop around, you may want to check out Asus’ Eee PC (or its upcoming rivals from HP, Dell, and Acer in the upcoming months).