Point/Counterpoint - Mobile Phones
Bill: So Kyle, I hear you've got a shiny new wireless phone. What'd you get?
Kyle: Well, after reviewing a Nokia N900 for a few months, when it was time to give it back, I decided to buy one of my own [see Kyle's review of the Nokia N900 in the May 2010 issue of LJ].
Bill: Wow, you picked that over a BlackBerry, Droid or iPhone?
Kyle: Yeah. Honestly, I was looking for more of a portable Linux computer and less of a smartphone. Because I wanted Linux, the iPhone and Blackberry were out of the equation, so that left me with a choice between the Droid and the N900. How many phones are you carrying around these days?
Bill: Just two—one personal and one work-assigned. I try to keep a good work/home separation these days. You're running two phones as well, from what I remember.
Kyle: Between the Droid and the N900, the hardware was mostly the same (same processor, hardware keyboard and so on), so it came down to the OS. In my opinion, Maemo was just more open and hackable out of the box than Android. Plus, all the apps for Android are written in a custom version of Java. Also, on Android, if you really want to own the device, you have to run unauthorized firmware that relies on exploits just to get root. On Maemo, root is easy to get out of the box without voiding any warranties or getting any C&D letters in the mail.
Bill: Yeah, well, those pesky cellular carriers don't like modified devices mucking about on their networks.
In my experience, Android isn't quite like the Linux we use on our laptops. Android is far more integrated and streamlined. For instance, there's no X server. And thanks to your—I'll use the word “distaste”—of all things Java, you decided to go with the Maemo-powered N900. How do you like it so far?
Kyle: I have to admit, I've been pretty pleased with it so far. I think Maemo is about as close to a regular Linux distribution that you'll get on a portable device that still has lots of the features of some of the shinier smartphones. Speaking of shiny, last I heard you were still on the iPhone bandwagon.
Bill: Oooh, shiny....
Kyle: So, why no Android or Maemo device in your pocket?
Bill: Practicality. I got my iPhone 3GS last year, and the only Android device then was the T-Mobile G1, which is on the wrong network, and there was no Maemo device at the time. Like all things Apple, the experience hasn't been all that bad.
It's like driving a BMW. You can't open the hood and change the oil because only the dealer can do that, but you can cruise down the road at 80 MPH, snubbing your nose at the folks who don't have the nice ride and air conditioning you have.
Kyle: Thanks for the car analogy, by the way, you know how I love those. Since you did bring up the car analogy though, I thought we Linux users didn't want our hoods welded shut? Since you got it, there have been a few different devices to come out with similar hardware but with either Android or Maemo, so why not switch?
Bill: Well, for one, I'm not made of money. $300 for the iPhone last year, and then another $500 for an unlocked Maemo device is just a little too much for my CFO at home to handle. And, you're welcome on the analogy. I know how much you love those. Although the hood may be welded shut, you can pop the hood if you know how (via jailbreak). And yes, my phone is jailbroken.
Kyle: See, that's the deal-breaker for me both on the iPhone and on Android devices. I don't think I should have to jailbreak anything to run what I want on it. If you truly own the device, you should be able to install your own software.
Bill: Another reason why I've stuck with the iPhone to date is that we have a stable of iDevices around here. I swear, the things have procreated overnight. Kelly's also running an iPhone, my daughter's got an iPod Touch, and my son has a jailbroken first-generation iPhone without a SIM. All apps we buy can land on all the devices because they are associated with the same iTunes account. I know, the next thing you're going to bring up is “walled garden”! Although I get the whole freedom argument, sometimes it's nice to have things that “just work”.
Kyle: And, every app is now tied to those devices, so even if you did want to switch to a different OS, you'd have to face throwing that money you spent away.
Bill: That's true, but things just work. That happens with any installed base of commercial software, by the way.
Kyle: I mean, it's a nice way to make sure you stick with a particular vendor, but again, it seems to fly in the face of what we stand for as longtime Linux users. It sounds like if it just worked, you wouldn't have to jailbreak your device, now would you?
Bill: Hey, you're making a moral argument out of this. This is a practical thing. After a day of hacking on servers and toiling in the data center, the last thing I want to do is mess around on my daughter's handheld device.
Kyle: Every geek I see with an iPhone seems to have a jailbroken one, so basically to get to this magical “just works” state, people have to take their expensive portable computer out of warranty. Anyway, nothing says I have to hack my N900. You certainly can get plenty of use out of everything it offers by default. It just has a whole other world of options open to you if you do want to tinker, just like any other regular Linux install.
Bill: To bring up another car analogy, my dad has been a mechanic forever. Yet my mom's car, and his truck, are relatively new and covered by warranty. Why? Because although he can build a kick-butt vehicle out of junk, he simply doesn't want to. He can just hand the keys to someone and say “fix it”. He has the option to open the hood, just like I do with my jailbreak, but he doesn't have to.
Kyle: Not another car analogy.
Bill: Yes, another car analogy—cause you know I'm all about that.
Kyle: You don't have to open the hood with the N900 either. There's a whole set of default applications, plus many more are available with the standard application manager.
Bill: I have an N800 Maemo device, and I had to tinker a lot with it to get it where I wanted.
Do you get root right out of the box? I don't think you do. You have to install gainroot, I believe.
Kyle: All you have to do is install one extra program called rootsh, and root is yours, and honestly, I think that is just so you can say you accept the responsibilities of root. See, with your N800, I think you tinkered with it because you knew you could tweak it. With an iPhone, basically it either does something you want or you are out of luck.
Bill: Yeah, I wanted to tweak with the N800 more, I'll grant you that. I even wrote an article on it. Although the N800 and N900 share an ancestry, the use case is different. One's a tablet PC companion, the other is a phone. But jailbreaking isn't much harder than installing your rootsh program. I ran one executable on the computer, and it was done. Regarding the iPhone, I've gotten it to do the tasks I've needed. I've clearly not been out of luck with it.
Kyle: Yet I bet you didn't get that jailbreaking app from the app store did you?
Bill: No, of course not. It was merely a google away.
Kyle: It's like saying, “Sure, I can get any cable channel I want now that I got this descrambler.”
Bill: Well, yeah, so what? I can get any cable channel I want. But that's not the point of this column, is it? We're not here to discuss the morality of a device, but its practicality.
Kyle: Really the argument between the iPhone and environments like Maemo is no different from the argument about OS X versus Linux.
Bill: I'll agree there. Actually, they are precisely the same, as iPhoneOS uses the OS X kernel, and Maemo uses Linux. That's the first analogy you've used in this article that has legs.
Kyle: It comes down to whether you are willing to sacrifice the freedoms you are used to in Linux to have something that allegedly “just works”, or if it doesn't, you can buy apps until it does.
Bill: I'll bet you I've spent less on my iPhone + apps than you did on your N900.
Kyle: Possibly. After all, I bought the N900 shortly after it came out at an unsubsidized and unlocked price. Just like on OS X, you can generally buy your way out of your problems.
Bill: Sometimes, that's the most efficient use of resources. My time is worth something.
Kyle: But then, you seem to be fine with any and all locks, so I'm sure you are fine being locked into a phone contract as well.
Bill: I don't like most locks. I typically break them. I don't mind a phone contract though.
Kyle: See, my time is worth something, but so is my freedom. The beauty of open-source software is that most of the time, I'm not the only one who wants a feature. Because the platform is open, most of the time someone else adds a cool program or feature for me. Even if others don't, at least I have the option if I want it. Plus, on the N900, I can code in C, C++, Python or even bash and use either GTK or Qt if I want, and I don't have to get Apple's blessing for others to use and help improve my program.
Bill: You're trying to pitch me on running Linux, man. I am on the editorial staff here. I get it. I choose, today, for my wireless device not to run Linux. I'll admit, that irks me a bit. But it's not enough to cause me to dump the installed base and change my work paradigm...again.
Kyle: I'm just saying the same principles apply whether your computer is desktop-sized or fits in your pocket. In fact, as more and more people use pocket-sized computers, these issues are going to become more important, not less.
Bill: Remember, I moved to the iPhone last year. I really don't feel up to changing things drastically again. It's about practicality for me.
Kyle: The bottom line for me is that I want my portable computer to give me the same freedoms I'm used to on my desktop or laptop. Right now, for me, the only platform that seems to get close is Maemo. I think the open-source model works, and I want it enjoy those advantages no matter what device I use.
Bill: That's cool, and that's your priority. Mine is to have the device's tech just get the heck out of my way so I can do what I need to do. At the end of the day, I'm tired, and I want to get stuff done so I can get home to my kids.
I won't lie and say I've not thought about getting an N900. I have. They look way cool, but playing with a device isn't my top priority right now.
Kyle: Like always, I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one.
Bill: You think we'll have to? I know we will. But that's okay, we've done that before too.
Kyle Rankin is a Systems Architect in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of a number of books, including The Official Ubuntu Server Book, Knoppix Hacks and Ubuntu Hacks. He is currently the president of the North Bay Linux Users' Group.
Bill Childers is an IT Manager in Silicon Valley, where he lives with his wife and two children. He enjoys Linux far too much, and he probably should get more sun from time to time. In his spare time, he does work with the Gilroy Garlic Festival, but he does not smell like garlic.
Kyle Rankin is a VP of engineering operations at Final, Inc., the author of a number of books including DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and is a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin.