Driving to Laptopia

The first part of Doc's adventures with a new ThinkPad: what needs to be addressed before Linux laptops can make it in the real user world.

In my January 2004 Linux For Suits column in Linux Journal, here's what I said it would take to bring Linux to the laptop:

necessity will mother invention. One of these months, some company--a FedEx, a Boeing, a General Motors, a Siemens--will call on Dell, HP and IBM to compete for filling a gargantuan Linux laptop order. The relationship with Microsoft will be strained for the winner of the contest, but they'll do the deal. They'll lean on Intel to release the Linux device drivers for Centrino. They'll work with Canon and Sony to get the device drivers written for the cameras, camcorders and scanners. They'll finish hammering out the ACPI issues. And we'll have good, cheap Linux laptops being marketed, with real advertising, by the big hardware OEMs.

And here is the first response I received from a reader (I've cleaned up the English a bit):

Why do vendors not support Linux on laptops?

Only nerds are missing Linux on notebooks. Windows machines are far ahead in features and Apples are way too cool. Samba solved all the practical requirement of installing Linux on a laptop in a business environment--as far as end users are concerned!

Not everybody who uses a pen is a calligrapher or wants to be one! Why does one have to be a geek...as a precondition even to use this OS on a laptop? The installation itself is a nightmare--it's like making your own nib on the quill and cutting your fingers to bleed in the process.

Let's face it, Linux developers [are] people oriented to open source coolness but never were user friendly with their features and interfaces. This did not help marketing a whole lot! For the common public, they were last to come out with a bundled GUI interface.

Also in January, at LinuxWorld New York, Dan Frye, one of IBM's leading Linux honchos (and a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Board), was a guest on The Linux Show. Before host Jeff Gerhardt had a chance to ask the first question, Dan volunteered an answer to "that question you've been asking me the last four years". Yes, Dan said, IBM will be offering both a Linux desktop and a Linux laptop--this year. IBM, Dan reported, has 15,000 house testers using Linux on the desktop. When Jeff said this was "going to make Doc very happy", Dan replied, "Anything we can do to make Doc happy is okay.", or words to that effect. The quote comes from Jeff's own memory of the conversation.

In January John C. Dvorak reported on "IBM's Blue Linux on the Desktop", saying "The bad news is that the company may sit on the OS for up to two years before actually releasing it. I saw a gossip item about this, and an IBM insider confirmed the self-imposed delay to me. Can IBM be pushed onto a faster track with this product? Someone had better do that."

I get the feeling that's already happening.

By coincidence, I was taking delivery of a new IBM T-40 ThinkPad from EmperorLinux at LinuxWorld New York. They call it the Toucan, and it's a beautiful computer. The screen is bright and sharp, the keyboard layout and feel are close to perfect, the magnesium-alloy body is sturdy, it's light (4.9 pounds), the battery life is outstanding, it has both a trackpad and a nub pointer (a total of five mouse buttons) and it's about as fast as a laptop gets. All of this is great if you're a road warrior running Windows or a hacker running Linux. The problem is, I'm never been a Windows user and I'm not a hacker. I'm a writer. I'm also a photographer, an amateur astronomer and a parent who shoots a lot of home video, and I like to involve my laptop in all of those activities. I'm fairly technical for a civilian, but I'm not a computer scientist and I'm not a programmer. Before I started using Linux in the late 90s, I never had cause to use a command line. And I've done my best to avoid one ever since, because often doing so means something has gone wrong or requires more expertise than I can muster.

From the laptop perspective, however, I'm an Xtreme road warrior as well as a sub-technical Linux user, which makes me an ideal torture tester for Linux on the laptop (LOTL). Because I don't use a desktop most of the time (I don't want to switch boxes when I come home), LOTL is a better match for me than LOTD (Linux on the desktop). Which is why Don Marti, our Editor-in-Chief here at Linux Journal, wants me to torture-test the best LOTD we can put in my dangerous hands.

Don also noticed that I've been better at observing Linux from the 50,000-feet level than on the ground as a regular user. Maybe, as LOTD approaches the marketplace--like lava boiling up from under the earth--it's time to put me and the LOTD of my choice to work on a torture assignment. You're reading the first results right now.

So here's my situation.

Professionally, I live in three places: 1) the "last acre" we call the wireless Internet--even at home, where the Net is distributed by several Wi-Fi access points; 2) the road, going to trade shows and talks, many of which I present at; and 3) my office, where I like to jack the laptop into a second monitor and a lot of other peripherals (camera, camcorder, scanner, printer, speakers), so I can spread my electronic clutter over maximum physical and virtual desk space.

Personally, I live where multimedia and the Net meet the arts and sciences, sometimes both at the same time. For example, every night when I'm home and it isn't raining (that's most nights, because I live in Southern California), my seven-year-old boy and I go outside, sit in a rocking chair and search the skies, assisted by a laptop with a Wi-Fi connection running planetarium software. The laptop we've been using is a 17" PowerBook G4. The huge screen is a big plus for astronomy, but its main virtue is its light-up keyboard. Although not perfect (the F keys are too dim), it has a remarkable ability to sense exactly how much it needs to light the keys without disturbing the surrounding darkness. This feature also has served me well when writing in the dark, such as while attending lectures in poorly lit halls or riding in the back seat of a taxi.

Take the time I needed to file my January 22 SuitWatch before 3pm PST on the afternoon of January 21. I originally intended to send the piece to headquarters in Seattle from LinuxWorld at the Javits Center in New York, which is three hours ahead. The piece mostly was written by noon that day; all I needed were a few more details due to arrive by e-mail. As happens too often at shows like this one, connectivity sucked. That afternoon, the network was down completely. Nobody was getting out on the Net anywhere at the show, neither by Ethernet nor Wi-Fi. As it happened, I had an appointment for drinks at 6pm (exactly deadline time) uptown on the East Side. Javits is on the west side of Midtown.

So, as the deadline approached, I got in a cab and headed across town. At the first stoplight I checked for Wi-Fi connections that weren't WEPed, found one, got on and pulled down my e-mail. I worked on the piece in the back of the cab, in the dark, all the way to my appointment, exchanging e-mail and checking stuff on the Web at three or four more stoplights (I lost count)--all through home Wi-Fi connections provided by the good citizens of New York. After cutting the appointment as short as possible, I grabbed a ride to a friends' apartment not far away. There I went to a back bedroom that looked out on a courtyard surrounded by other high-rises, got on the Net through one of the thirty or so Wi-Fi signals I could see and filed the story. By the grace of a machine that rocks at wardriving and illuminating its keyboard, I was a little late but still in time to get the newsletter in queue.

As a PowerBook user, I'm hardly an oddity in Linux circles. OS X runs on Darwin, which is a breed of BSD. It has a UNIX core and a lot of standard UNIX programs, and it obeys common UNIX commands. Its default shell is bash. On it, I can ssh to my servers at home or to my Linux server at Rackspace, where Searls.com lives and where I keep tons of files. I can put it to sleep by closing the lid, and nothing bad happens. For fun I'll sometimes open a shell, run uptime and see how many days or weeks the thing has gone without a reboot.

OS X machines also run Microsoft Office programs that can open, save and share files with Office for Windows, which is a huge plus in the business world, my topic for Linux Journal. They're also great for making presentations, because you don't have to restart them or perform other voodoo when you hook them up to a projector. (The ThinkPad with Linux seems fine at this too.)

Another plus: PowerBooks tend to run PowerPoint without crashing. I know using PowerPoint is a form of extreme political incorrectness in Linux circles, but I also have to say, immodestly, that I'm unusually good at it--presenting, that is. As it happens, PowerPoint, for many awful reasons, is the best presentation software out there, on any platform, including Steve Jobs' very own Keynote on OS X. Yes, Keynote is pretty, but it's not good for the stuff I do, which isn't pretty but does make people laugh or, at least, stay awake. Sure, I could use OpenOffice.org, even on OS X, but feature-wise it still doesn't compete. Worse, it's been crashy for me, even on Linux; more on this point below.

PowerBooks now are common as cameras in geek circles. For the past two years at O'Reilly's two big conferences, eTech and OSCon, PowerBooks have comprised about half the laptop population. At ApacheCon last Fall, they were in the majority. Witness this picture, taken at the hackathon that opened the show.

There's no doubt that OS X PowerBooks are filling a gap left open by the lack of Linux laptops from major vendors. Most techies I know who use PowerBooks on the road have Linux servers at home. And they're doing a great job. I wince to repeat what Blake Stone, the CTO of Borland, said to me when he demonstrated how his 17" PowerBook got on the Net over Bluetooth using a Sony Ericsson cell phone as a bridge to T-Mobile's cell-based Internet service. He said, "OS X is my favorite Linux distribution."

Dan Frye told Jeff Gerhardt at LinuxWorld that desktops were IBM's first priority for deploying personal Linux, and that's understandable. The volume will be huge. But enterprise Linux desktops are simply the new 3270 display terminals. They're VT100s and VT200s, droneware for "transaction workers". What IBM and HP need to do first is what Sun started talking about doing back in the summer of 2002--get into the white box business. Take a slice of that low-margin pie, and maybe open a higher-margin wedge there too. There's no reason, other than low margins and fear of their partner from Redmond, for OEMs not to go after that business, even if it's not especially sexy or interesting.

If you want to talk hardware sex, at least to suits like me, you have to talk laptops. The problem is, you can't leverage nonsexy desktop technology into sexy laptops, not entirely anyway. They're too different, not only in size and performance requirements, but in nature and purpose. This difference goes far beyond form factors and cosmetics.

Desktops are appliances. Laptops are instruments. The difference between a Dell desktop and an Apple PowerBook is like that between a Kenmore washer and a Fender Stratocaster. And by that I mean no offense to the Dell. What I want here, by making that comparison, is to motivate Dell to make an instrument of similar quality and utility. For all I know they already do. I have friends who swear by Dell laptops. But Dell makes those laptops, the stickers on them tell me, to run Windows XP. I want one that's made to run Linux or one of your favorite distros. Whatever. Just get serious about it, guys. Now is the time.

Clearly, PowerBooks are the instruments to beat. And that's exactly what I'm hoping to see happen with this new ThinkPad. No, I don't expect it to do everything the PowerBook does. I expect it to do more. Eventually.

Meanwhile, simply getting it to work has been an adventure.

At LinuxWorld, the EmperorLinux guys did their best to get me going on the thing. The distro we chose was Fedora (they can customize everything), which was fine with me because Red Hat still is the majority Linux distro out there. I've had more experience with Debian and understand apt-get better than RPM, but I was willing to go with Fedora anyway. When I told them I wanted to be able to do wardriving for Wi-Fi, however, they realized the 802.11b card they had installed wouldn't work. So, they decided to put in an 802.11a/b/g card that would work well with Kismet. Unfortunately, it didn't light up the little Wi-Fi light under the screen. Still, I could live with it--or so I thought.

After I got home, it took a lot of hand-holding from qualified techies (involving ifconfig and iwconfig, mostly) to make the ThinkPad work with any of my several different Wi-Fi base stations. Getting the box to work in Windows (it's a dual-boot, with Windows in a small partition of the 80GB drive) was also a bear. But it did show me how good the IBM relationship could be; the machine comes with an IBM call button that puts the user inside an extensive IBM service directory. I'll tell you, Dan, if that button doesn't go to the same kind of help for Linux, the job isn't done.

For the next month--up to the Linux Journal company retreat in Mexico, the week before last--I did all the work I could on the ThinkPad. But that wasn't much. Why? I'll try to make this as short as I can.

First, I never could get my wardriving act together. Kismet didn't come up easily. I have no idea what I was doing wrong, and I'm sure it was me, and most of the time the machine wouldn't hold a connection. The situation was actually worse with Windows, which has a GUI for Wi-Fi that never made sense to me. I'm sure it's more detailed than the PowerBook's, but it's far less useful for wireless access reconnaissance (the WAR in wardriving). Worse, in Windows the ThinkPad's Wi-Fi had a way of screwing up the base stations; the things simply would stop working. I don't know how or why. I could ping them, but they wouldn't serve data. Very strange. In Linux the box wasn't much better. It would work for awhile and then lose the connection, and not for a lack of signal. In most cases, the base stations were in the same room or close enough. Never could figure it out.

Second, I couldn't get an e-mail transfer strategy worked out. I've been using Eudora on Mac since 1995 and have many, many gigabytes of mailbox files, going back to 1995. All of it is in Eudora's variant on mbox, which is convertible, but only by techies more able than myself. Eudora2Unix, for example, uses a set of Python scripts to do the conversion. Looks good, but it's way beyond me. Yes, I tried--never felt dumber in my life.

Third, too many glitches required help from qualified geeks. There's a limit to how much time I can demand of other people, including the ones I pay for help. And I've spent plenty on this project, not including money spent for extra gear like the external firewire drive I bought back in New York to ferry files between the PowerBook and the ThinkPad, one of several failed strategies.

When I got to our retreat in Mexico, however, I was eager to show my colleagues at Linux Journal my minimal proficiency at the new ThinkPad, mostly by making a presentation using OpenOffice.org's equivalent of PowerPoint. I was up much of the night before, working on my talk, giving up on one fancy flourish after another (never could get graphics to import right), until I had a very spare but attractive presentation prepared.

But when I went to review the draft the next morning, the file had gone bad. It opened but then seized up. Images turned to little buzzing lines, while the audio made an annoying high-pitched whine. It was so bad that it required a reboot. Repeatedly. The files existed in .xml, so they were recoverable. But it took two hours of heavy investigative work, with much muttering and brow furrowing by staff techies, to get at the data. (One nice thing: I could easily burn the bad files off onto a CD so they could be examined on another machine. The ThinkPad is good at that.) Meanwhile, I prepared a new presentation in MS Office. Then it crashed the same way. To make a long sad story shorter, I eventually got the job done, but it was a discouraging ordeal.

Meanwhile, I admired what others on staff could do with SuSE on their laptops that I couldn't do with Fedora on mine. So the ThinkPad is now in the hands of staff techies, having itself SuSEfied. I'll get it back soon, and report on what happens next.

Back to the challenges for IBM, Dell, HP and the rest of those guys.

Last week, I was at an advisory board meeting for PingID, a startup in Denver. The company was full of ThinkPad T-40s, many of them running Linux (Debian, I think). Plenty of PowerBooks were there too. Talking around, it became clear to me that IBM has a great candidate for PowerBook replacement with the T-40, if they can make Linux, its programs and device drivers all work together. The ThinkPads are lighter and more rugged than the PowerBooks, it seems to me. They have a nice little light that shines down on the keyboard too. It's not as fancy as the PowerBook's backlight, but not bad. KStars is a great astronomy program too. I enjoyed using it with the kid on the back deck and can't wait to see how it drives a connectable telescope.

So. Here are a few of my recommendations for the big OEMs as they step into the LOTL business:

1) Sleep and battery management. At the very least, deal with ACPI. Laptops need to sleep and wake gracefully and light up the right indicators on their dashboards too. They should manage power as well as the T-40 does in Windows, which is very nicely indeed. This is also an area where the PowerBooks might be easy to beat. None of them are battery longevity champs.

2) Printing. Room actually exists here to do the job better than Microsoft and Apple. Windows printing is still too complex. And I believe Apple regressed between OS 9 and OS X. At least with OS 9 you could see if a printer was ready to receive data, not so with OS X. You just kind of hope it's there and works. Baseline: The Luxury of Ignorance: An Open Source Horror Story. That's Eric Raymond's rant about CUPS, the Common Unix Printing System, which provides "a textbook lesson in why nontechnical people run screaming from Linux".

3) Device driving in general. Apple's big advantage, one Darwin developer told me two years ago, is that they've done good device drivers for a near-countless variety of printers, scanners, projectors, digicams, camcorders and other knick-knacks produced by Canon, Nikon, HP, Epson and the rest. Somebody (Marc Andreessen?) said OSes are bags of device drivers. Linux is much better than it used to be in this department, but it will need to achieve parity with Windows and OS X. It's the laptop OEMs' job, I believe, to help this one across the finish line.

4) Package management. Apt-get is easier for me to use than is RPM, but for the civilian neither is a bargain. Lindows has done an excellent job of making apt-get work in a GUI download environment that lets the user browse through "aisles" of both free and commercial packages. And it installs everything with extreme ease. It's not perfect, but it's the best system I've seen, aside from Apple's iTunes Music Store, which sells only music.

5) Trouble-shooting. I love the button that calls IBM on the ThinkPad. Take that thing and make it not only work for Linux, but take advantage of what makes Linux so maintainable: expert human beings. Go ahead and charge for it, too. The suits will pay, believe me.

6) Wi-Fi. Make it easy to get on anywhere with Wi-Fi. Apple kicks butt at this right now, but that doesn't mean others can't do better.

7) Instant Messaging. Take ZeroConf and make it more open than Apple's Rendezvous, which is based on it. Bring in XMPP for presence detection, if necessary. Apple's iChat is the best of its breed, especially with Rendezvous; but it's a closed system. No, interoperating with AOL isn't exactly open. The world still needs open IM, with presence detection. There's a huge market hole here for some Linux portable boxmaker to walk through with its head high. Of all the basic network services in the Internet suite, IM is the biggest one to remain captive to vendors competing with closed systems. If the software guys won't break the logjam, maybe one of the hardware guys could do the job.

Late bulletin: Eric Raymond just wrote to tell me this:

Last week I jawboned Fedora into integrating Zeroconf, with backing from the guy at Apple who invented it. John Gardner of fedora-devel has taken this on as his personal project. This was direct fallout from my CUPS rant, so that had at least one good effect.

8) Managing multiple screens. When I plug an external monitor into the PowerBook, it autodetects it, sets the resolution if necessary and remembers the configuration for next time. Same with projectors. I want the same in a Linux laptop.

9) DVD recording. Apple is way ahead on this one, with the combination of iMovie and iDVD. But again, it's a closed system. I don't know what's there for Windows, but I'm sure it's too complicated. There has to be a simpler approach that will work on a Linux laptop. Make it happen.

I'll add to the list--and have much more to report--after I get the restored ThinkPad back from headquarters, which should be soon.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. His monthly column in the magazine is Linux for Suits, and his biweekly newsletter is SuitWatch.


Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal


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A couple of "recommendations to OEM's" already work...

Craig "Fuzzy" Conner's picture

I'm running Mandrake 10.1 Official on a Toshiba Satellite A45-S121. (All of the hardware is made by Toshiba and Intel, and everything works except the 56k modem.) A couple of items on the hit-list are not problems for my arrangement:

>> 4) Package management...

Mandrake's urpmi and the GUI that goes with it (/usr/bin/MandrakeUpdate) make this a non-issue, as other users' comments have alluded to in more detail.

>> 8) Managing multiple screens...

This is one thing Toshiba does well. There's a key combination that cycles the 2 video outputs through all of their possible combinations. I use my laptop with a projector often. I sometimes use it for presentations that last up to 5 hours and I never have problems with this feature.

I have run into odd OOo issues from time to time, but not very often. They're not laptop-specific and not "show stoppers" for me.

2 down... Linux time being faster than real time, we're pretty close to solving these things without needing to tie ourselves to 1 hardware vendor. (If I wanted to do that, I'd go back to running Solaris.)

Linux on Laptop, try Mepis Linux

Brian Chase's picture

After reading the base article, I noticed a significant focus on Powerbook hardware. For those looking to save some money and would like a nice sub $1000 laptop and run Linux, I have witnessed very good experiences with Mepis Linux. Mepis is a Debian based LiveCD distro that can install to hard drive with VERY easy graphical installer, and recognizes many WiFi cards, like athX and wlanX, the former I think being built in Centrino. It uses Debian mirrors and has a huge FOSS availability, and has the stability and ease of use of a modern Debian system.

I'll either be using Debian-based Mepis or Knoppix for any client OS that I deploy in the near future. Redhat's going in a proprietary / commercial direction, so is Suse. In addition, Redhat and Suse are both RPM based and don't have access to the expansive Debian software mirrors that a true Debian based system has.

I still stick with Fedora for servers, mainly due to familiarity, but once I learn to do all that with Debian, I'm switched over for good.

Linux on my laptop

Anonymous's picture

I tried to install a downloaded version of RedHat Linux 9.0 on my laptop and was unsuccessful. Can someone tell me why I am not able to install it ?? Please email me at manic001@csusm.edu

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Doc's picture

Dan Gillmor points here in his latest column for the San Jose Mercury News. Some interesting comments are appended there as well.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Mindflayer's picture

I use a Powerbook, and it's a dream. I did install Fedora on an older laptop, and while it works, it's still not there in terms of fit and finish. I do hope Linux continues to grow - it'll push innovation on Apple's side!

Is it easy to configure , stu

Anonymous's picture

Is it easy to configure , sturdy and way reliable?
i do need a very sturdy laptop (i think that a crap which breaks is not a computer).

thanks a lot.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

Politics cannot be left out of this discussion. The points made about the inadequacies of Linux regards laptop use are well taken. Linux desktops have problems as well, and have long been stated as the reason why Linux is not yet ready for the general public. But people keep making the switch to Linux anyway, and Linux keeps getting better. For some non-geeks, like myself, the reason we switched to Linux is becaus FREEdom is more important to us than the latest and greatest Microsoft or Mac ability, and because Linux is adequate to do most or all of the computing we wish to accomplish, even if we must beg or hire a Linux wizard on occasion.

Turning to a Powerbook may be a pragmatic necessity for some people, but please lets drop the nonsense of confusing OS-X with Linux. GNU/Linux, and GNU/HURD if it ever gets to a workable stage, actualize FREEdom of use. A Mac Powerbook is the essence of monopoly. Mac has total control of the architecturel, and OS, as well as other software. Mac in Microsoft's position would be even worse than Microsoft.

The power and allure of Linux is telling from the comments to this article. Individuals dumping whatever Linux distros onto whatever laptops are being compared to a large corporation's concerted efforts to integrate their hardware and software design.

Fine, Powerbook has set the standard for Linux to meet and surpass. I hope IBM or other company does it. That will be a Richter scale 8 centered in Redmond, WA.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Doc's picture

Well put. That last line is a pull quote. Thanks.

Wireless Tool for Linux to help Find and Associate to AP's

Anonymous's picture

Have you checked out ApRadar yet?

This might be something that will help finding and associating to various Access Points in Linux.


Re: Wireless Tool for Linux to help Find and Associate to AP's

Anonymous's picture

Fedora FUD. Interesting all the comments which are simultaneously pro-SuSE and anti-Fedora. Take note of the fact that Fedora Core 2 is a beta. The only available comparison between the two distros is Red Hat 9 and SuSE 9.0. Otherwise wait until Fedora Core is actually _released_.

Re: Wireless Tool for Linux to help Find and Associate to AP's

Anonymous's picture

Look at the comments now. There are nearly a dozen comments pushing people to give up on Linux and open-source altogether and just switch to closed-source Mac OS X -- on a site called 'Linux Journal'. You'd think if Mac users were reading Linux journal, it'd be because they LIKE Linux. But their posts read more like sales pitches for OS X and have nothing good to say about Linux at all.

I smell Astroturfing. It's not SuSe you should worry about - I once heard an Apple salesman joking about "cutting off Linux's air supply" (like Microsoft said they did to Netscape), which is the developers. True, Linux isn't as polished as OS X yet. But it will be, unless Apple succeeds in stealing everybody over from Linux to OSX. Every developer who "switches" is one less guy helping to perfect Linux and make a standardized, completely open and free system.

Thank God for IBM, HP and the other companies who are supporting the creation of an even playing field for app-makers with Linux, and the governments who are tired of Microsoft's forced upgrades due to incompatibility and security holes that aren't being fixed in older systems.

Thank God for Linux.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

jan's picture

Good news that you're going to do the SuSE thing, since it's by far a better distro for laptop usage than Fedora. Make no mistake, Fedora does have a place, and now that the community that developed around Fedora has established itself properly, things will only look up for the future.

I'm using a newish HP/Compaq nx7000, P4 M 1.5GHz Centrino with a wonderful wide screen. Granted, some of the ACPI functions are not really well supported, although a kernel patch and upgrade to a 2.6 kernel solved that quite admirably. The on-board Intel 2100 based 802.11b WiFi adapter still doesn't work natively under Linux, although there seems to be some movement on the Intel sites in terms of open source drivers for this chipset. Still no worries, I use a Siemens-Fujitsu ConnectBird USB WiFi adapter that works extremely well under Linux, and is actually superior to the Intel in terms of signal strength handling whilst wardriving et al.

Point taken on the Powerbook issue, although I don't feel the need to change. OK, so PowerPoint is more feature rich than OpenOffice.org's Impress, but since I'm not a public speaker it doesn't really bother me much. I only use Impress when I need to import and look at other people's slideshows, for my own I use a real geek tool called Magicpoint (see http://www.mew.org/mgp/ for this excellent tool). Granted, it's not for everyone, but raw power there is aplenty. It should also work under MacOS X, since it's purely X based.

Until recently I had an old Mac 3400c Powerbook, which was a pretty decent machine at it's time (603e processor clocked at 200MHz and 128Mb RAM). Unfortunately way to long in the tooth for the sexy OS X, so I had to keep to system 8.5 and Linux. Having said that, the little book ran Gentoo Linux with a vengeance, doing duty as a travelling demo server for just about anything under the sun, Postresql, Mysql, PHP demos and CUPS printing, name it it did it. It was no slouch under Linux by any means. Apple hardware is simply put, amaaaazing! However, in my neck of the woods (South Africa), such kit comes at a huge price premium, and after-sales service is so sucky that one could say it doesn't exist. Pity, Steve could have had Africa, instead we have to pay homage (amongst other things) to a guy called William.

Back to LOTL. Huge headway has been made by distros like SuSE with 9.0 (some interesting bits in store for the up and coming 9.1) and Mandrake's version 10. Debian is doing good things from a technical perspective, although that still remains firmly in the realm of the types with long hair and high caffeine counts. Gentoo, my own distro of choice, same as Debian from a tech perspective. However, before I re-installed with Gentoo, I did run Mandrake 10 in order to evaluate it on my nx7000 laptop, and I was frankly speaking gobsmacked. Everything worked (apart from the WiFi and modem) as it should, even suspend/resume, last feature thanks to a 2.6 kernel. The ATI graphics card was identified correctly, and OpenGL was working at tolerable levels (not as good as with ATI's proprietry drivers, though).

So, what is still not there? Actually precious little from a technical perspective. However, from a "user experience" perspective the few technical hurdles left has a huge impact. IMHO the following needs to be looked at, all doable in a relatively short span of time:

1) Proper graphics support, not only for GL applications, but also for chipset feature support like external screens, TV out and so forth.

2) All WiFi cards and software modems should be supported. Here the manufacturers should make a large effort, especially Intel (2100 series) and Broadcom. If only Intel get their act together, all "Centrino" spec machines will work without having to buy third-party driver hacks (sorry, I know excellent work by the dudes who wrote the driver-loader, but it's still a hack).

3) Kernel hackers should think about a way that vendors could plug in their proprietry drivers with ease from a user perspective. This "will taint the kernel" business is all cool and fine from an Open Source advocacy point of view, but it still doesn't help the user. For myself it's easy, twiddle it with insmod or modprobe and away I go, but from a user adoption point of view there is still quite some way to go before Auntie Maude would want to run this wonderful OS (which it is) on her laptop

4) Proper standards for the above should be considered and maybe built into the LSB or similar. This way at least manufacturers and OEMs would have the same level of API stability (or at least a close approximation of it) for writing drivers and tools without having to support the gazillions of distros out there.

For all I know such a specification is already part of LSB, but it must be adopted and adhered to, or the common user out there won't want to join the good cause.

Back to things Maccish, MacOS X is seriously kewl, Apple hardware is wonderful, but it still in terms of sheer bang-for-bucks you're going to have a tough time beating the averages in terms of cheap, good quality PC-based laptop hardware out there. Even with brandnames like Dell, IBM, HP and so forth, you're still going to end up paying significantly less (especially if you buy bulk like some large companies do) for the entire lifetime of a good quality PC laptop. And, if one is sensible and know some geekish types that could help you make a proper decision about distributions of Linux, it's still a viability to run Linux and be totally productive without being a geek yourself.

It's a pity that Doc had such a bad time with that lucious IBM laptop, hope that your techs can help you getting sorted. It's still going to be a bit of a fight, that's the unfortunate truth, however things are looking up a lot if you look back at what happened in the past two years. Go Doc!!! Looking forward to your next article.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

Hey!I'm a starter at Linux and I am trying to find a connectbird usb wireless lan driver!Can you help me? My e-mail is a28350@alunos.det.ua.pt ,if you can send it to me..or tell me were can I get it!Tanks man!

Mandrake and Dell

Anonymous's picture

Excellent article - yes, laptops are the beginning of the last great frontier. Think of how far the desktop has come in two years, though. I am writing this on a Dell 5100 running Mandrake 10. Definitely the best distro solution I have found for the laptop. It got my Video card (Radeon 7500) OpenGL set up, did my NIC and almost everything else right. ACPI Sleep and Suspend are still a little ways off in the 2.6 kernel but, I feel, we are getting closer closer closer (I can almost see light at the end of the tunnel). I print over a network using CUPS (easy set up) to a desktop running Mdk9.1 with an Epson C82 - smooth network photo printing - no problems with drivers if you do just a little homework before you buy. We have a canon USB Digital camera that works out of the box better under mandrake than it ever did in 'doze.

On the other hand, I don't have a digital Video camera so I can't comment on firewire capture. I do use an analog capture board in my dekstop that, again, works better under Linux than Windows (Zoran chip). The video editing tools are still on the steep side of the development curve - getting there but not equal with Premiere, etc. yet.

WiFi is cool but I have no need for it. My understanding is, once again, if you choose the right card, it shouldn't be a major problem to set up. I certainly can't comment on the loads that Doc would put it through, though.

I think that Distro is a huge part of the equation. SuSE and Mandrake are much more likely to support this kind of world. Redhat is focused on the server and, despite the community around Fedora, can't keep up to Suse and Mandrake for easy desktop stuff. Remember that Mdk has Urpmi as an alternative to Apt-get. The only weakness is needing to set up the software repositories, something that Deb does automatically. Otherwise, the software is even sorted into subjects headings (if you want).

My 2 bits... :-)

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

Just in case you still want to install Linux on a laptop, have a look at TuxMobil - Linux on laptops, PDAs and mobile phones and Linux-on-Laptops. There is also a laptop manufacturer Linux status survey and a list of Linux laptop and PDA resellers and retailers available.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

When I plug an external monitor into the PowerBook, it autodetects it, sets the resolution if necessary and remembers the configuration for next time. Same with projectors. I want the same in a Linux laptop.

Ha! That does not even work reliably on Windows XP. A chance for Linux to leapfrog the competition, really.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

Have been driving, am there now.

I received my T30 last week, plopped in my Xandros 2.0 CD, and approx 25 minutes later had a fully functional unit - everything that I use daily was detected (cannot comment on the winmodem as I have cable-internet at home/work NOR the wifi/nic).
There is nothing to add as there was nothing to be done except customize : like colours, theme ....etc. How easy can it get ?

After driving, am now parked in Xandros Lane....

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

I've been running gentoo on my T-30 since august 2002, I've been very happy with it in general. The Wifi works FAR better under linux than under WindowsXP. The ACPI, however, is not so great. I've gotten by with APM, but I really really really really really really really really really really really want ACPI to work. Aside from that the only other problem I've had is that the cisco vpn client isn't compatible with the 2.6 kernel.

The T-30's a really solid machine, the only critical flaw it has is it's video chip/memory. The 16MB radeon 7500 is pretty lame. Although on that note, Neverwinter nights runs nicer under linux than under windowsXP on this machine.


I've even got a projector story: I was in a class in october 2002 and the professor was trying to show a website with her laptop through a projector. She was running WinXP and having no luck whatsoever. I offered her my laptop, she plugged it in and pressed the little video switch button and the screen came up on the projector, all before she had even noticed that it wasn't windows. I pointed her to the mozilla icon and the show went on.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

Hey, I'm on my third Linux notebook. There have been some limitations, but if you're willing to work with or around them, it's bound to get better. I started with RedHat 5.2 and a Toshiba Tecra 530CDT. I was told it couldn't be done so that was enough motivation for me to do so.

Since then, I've been on a Compaq Armada 7800 with Redhat 7.2, Hitachi VisionBook5000 with Slackware 8 & 9 and currently with a Compaq Evo N1000v with RedHat 9.0. Wireless!

With the exception of the usual hunt for working modem drivers and compatible printers, I've been happy.


Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

I have some photos for you. They're taken at the GUADEC 3 (2002):
Pic 1
Pic 2
and one from the GIMPcon2003:
Pic 1

It is not just that MacOS would be superior to Linux, it is often that the design and power packed into the powerbook is a killer combination. Often I've found free software hackers to run Linux on their PBs, like I do.

I love the PBs design and it is perfect in every way, but I do not run MacOS X on it. I run Yellow Dog Linux.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

I am using fedora on an IBM T41p with the a/b/g card. Everything is working perfectly - although to be 100% honest I have not used the modem - haven't needed to but downloaded and installed the drivers Ok. Now you have to run a tainted kernel which, if you are a purest, might stick in the throat. The driver for the a/b/g card installs under fedora as an rpm and just works. I struggled with the latest cvs copy of madwifi for the built in atheros card, but the rpms did the job, not 100% sure what the issue is. Bluetooth reportedly works, but have not tried it yet under linux. Oddly the latest cvs madwifi driver fixes the LED issue mentioned in the article, but still didn't allow me to connect the wlan, the RPM on the other hand works, but the LED does not!!

Under XP bluetooth crashes the explorer eventually requiring a reboot and works occasionally when it feels like it. XP also insists on re-installing the bluetooth LAN connection on every reboot - so I have like 15 Bluetooth LAN connections which XP helpfully wont let me delete. Wifi under XP mostly works, but it is temperamental - occasionally refusing to connect. The issue as far as I can tell is a fight between the IBM wifi management and the XP wifi management. Under linux I have had no trouble - although I have only connected to one wlan so far.

atheros rpms for t41p: http://dag.wieers.com/packages/kernel-module-madwifi/

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

I was a hardcore linux laptop user for several years. In fact, I still have a laptop running debian that I defaulted back to when my iBook wetn belly up and I have to say that most of Doc's comments are extremely justified. I spent more time futzing getting my machines to work (and there were... a Gateway, a Dell, an IBM and finally a Sony VAIO ) than working some weeks. However, once you got them working they were flawless and using OpenOffice worked jsut as well (now even better).
The problem is I think Linux support is actually going backwords. Of all the new machines I have looked at coming out in the last little while, they have actually had Win proprietary systems in them (I tend to concentrate on lighter, smaller laptops). After looking at the field, I have up and went with an iBook.
I must admit, I feel like a bit of a sell-out but I haven't regretted it, and Fink allows me to run all the open source X software I want (even KStars as Doc mentioned - though gnucash is also important). They are great machines and I have to admit while I was originally planning on installing debian on it when I got it, I have been using OSX constantly since converting. No complaints at all though I've been eyeing upgrading to a powerbook.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

I couldn't agree more with the article. I run Linux on my desktop but for laptops, the value of the machine is a lot in how hardware and OS are tightly integrated.

The Powerbook G4 I own is exactly that for me. It works flawlessly on all aspects and is a welcoming harbour for open source applications.

It uses the cups server running on my linux box to print on the linux supported HP printer I own and that's just one example.

A lot of the value of linux is relevant to a fixed machine : reliable, resilient, multiuser, able to run simultaneously server and desktop apps thanks to advanced process scheduling, able to take advantage of a wide range of standardised hardware and peripherals, and all that with very scarce support from the computer industry.
It's a lot less true with laptop machines especially when wireless and dialup networking is not forthcoming(what's a laptop without extended connection capabilities?), touchpad advanced functions are not fully supported, suspend on lid close is hit and miss, graphics are hard to configure etc, etc.

It's getting better all the time but until Linux is available pre-installed and preconfigured or that OS less standard based laptops are available, it won't be an obvious choice.

I think Lindows is right on when they bet on the preinstalled market rather than on the "conversion" market. It's much bigger market, where it's easier to back your support claims since you can thoroughly test the hardware and most people won't change the OS of any computer.

It will soon be in Dell's and other hardware vendors' interest to open various OS aisle on their ecommerce sites where Lindows and others will be able to offer their OSes preinstalled on current hardware, alongside all the supported upgrades and peripherals.

Hardware manufacturers would be able to unload support to the OS vendors (impossible with MS) and allow the OS vendors to find a much wider distribution base than the ISO downloads that prevail today.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

I've been using Mandrake Linux 9.1 on my Dell 8500 notebook for some time, and it did take a lot of fiddling to get all of the hardware working. The ACPI functions are still lacking (no suspend), mainly because I'm too lazy to work on setting it up.

However, now that the initial grunt work is done it works quite well. (Having said that, I shudder at the idea of updating the OS because it took so long to get to this point!) Lick the hardware and ACPI support problems and a lot more people will certainly find Linux an attractive alternative to Windoze for portable computing.

BTW, I specifically ordered this machine with NO wireless network capability. I frankly do not understand the attraction of "WiFi" or "wardriving" whatever it's called, given the inherent security problems of wireless networking. I just don't need access to the internet *that* badly, and I've been using it for over 20 years. My philosophy regarding the net is to dial in, get what I need, then disconnect and get on with my life.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

I used to be a die hard Linux man, SUSE my drug of choice. I had a horrible experience with Dell's Inspirion 5100, something like this, and about this time I met a man in Starbucks' with an Apple iBook 500. Sweet looking machine, but I was not an Apple OS fan, in my opion pre X was just as crappy a Windows. He showed me the X Os, and I found out it had a terminal. He had no idea what it was, but I did. I did a little research, and found out X was Unix based. Sent back the Dell, and purchased an iBook 600. I now own a complete Apple solution; Powerbook Al 1Gh, Powerbook Al 867, eMac 800 Mhz, iMac 600, and the first iBook 600. All of this bought in the last 2 years.

I just set up a tax company using 21 iBooks, 4 eMacs, and 1 PowerPc, all running Virutal PC to run Orrtax. The owners are stunned with what we are able to do; no viruses, to shut down the network, and it all runs wirelessly.

My good old powerbook

Anonymous's picture

Hi guys,
I am a PowerBook Ti 800MHz owner for about 2 years and installed all upcoming upgrades of MacOS X.
I am the general manager of a small Software edition and Consulting firm and everybody has a Mac over there (iMacs 1GHz 17" flat screen) and I can tell you that this hardware + Operating system + Development tools are AWESOME !
First I am able to run ANY software out there (I know that there is multiple solutions for Linux to run Windows software, but still I like VirtualPC) could it be Mac, Windows or unix free-source which helps me a lot when I am on the field at my customer office.
Secondly the OS is getting REALLY BETTER overtime, giving me more power, easyness and stability.
Third, MacOS X (even the server version since 10.3) is a no-hassle virus-free Operating system that never breaks, so I don't spend time doing re-install, virus cleaning, troubleshooting, thus giving me more time for doing REAL business. I just have to give the software update tool a look every 3 months (and reboot only at that occasion!) and buy a major OS update every year.
At last Mac can be effective work tools longer than Wintel machines because even if they are 2 years old, they still can compete with the latests PC offering, so that preserve my investment longer than if I had chosen PCs...

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

I have been battling with Linux on an HP nc4000 for the last week and a half (dual boot 80G) and have finally got it to the point where I can do everything I can do on my Powerbook (except run Microsoft Word, of course.) Talk about pain and suffering. Kernal patches, incorrect auto detection of network drivers, bad documentation were all contributers. I still find that I might as well keep the terminal window open continually, as I am constantly having to tweak things, and much basic functionality is only command line based. This is where Apple really has their act together - everything just works (no tweaking) and there is plenty of functionality in the core OS. If you don't believe me, try establishing a VPN connection on both w/ IPSec or PPTP, and you'll see what I mean. OSX is FAR more refined and tightly integrated. If only JBuilder ran as fast as the HP with Linux.

Have found that the Linuxant driverloader for WiFi is an awesome solution that works very well for ANY wireless card (and is easy to use.) Makes Windows XP drivers work from inside Linux, so it's a piece of cake to find a driver for your specific chipset - download it from the manufacturer. Fedora Core 1's power mgmt features are adequate and functional, though could be better.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

Errr...why do we need to displace PowerBooks again? Just to run Linux? Run a distro on your PowerBook! If there's an open source iDVD competitor, download it and run it under KDE on your PowerBook running Mac OS X. All I got out of this article is that Doc decided to make life much more complex for himself for no apparent reason (except to torture test LoTD which, while a fine exercise, seems to get in the way of doing work).

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Doc's picture

Well, my work is torture testing LoTD, or LoTL. It's my job. A long-term assignment, even.

And yes, it does make life much more complex. But that's why they call it "work". Lucky me, it's work I enjoy.

You're right that I could run some kind of Linux on a PowerBook. (In fact, I already do that, on an old spare.) But since I want to goad the big PC OEMs into making killer Linux desktops and laptops, I wouldn't help much if I went straight to running Linux on hardware from Apple.

The T-40 is great iron. I want to see Linux rock on that iron, and I'll gladly suffer some frustrations until it does. If we don't learn something form the experience, I won't be doing my job.

Re: Apple is there...

Anonymous's picture


I am from Sweden, but have attended the yearly Linux Forum in Copenhagen for the past 3 years. Every year Apple have been there with their killer hardware, showing Mac OS X etc. At first my reaction was "what the f... are Apple doing here...", but they keept comming every year, and I finally had to get me one of those PowerBoks. Man, they are cool :-)

Apple, keep it comming...


Re: Apple is there...

Anonymous's picture

I once considered Linux the best OS there is given the fact that because it's robust, more secure, open soure and free. But given the fact that it still needs a lot of tweeking to be more user-friendly, and with the recent legal issues involving SCO, Mac OSX and Apple hardware proves to be the answer to many linux problems. I believe Linux will continue to be the nerd's OS, and Mac OSX as the OS "for the rest of us".

Re: Apple is there...

Anonymous's picture

The more I look at SCO's case, the more I realize it is completely baseless. It looks more like a fishing expedition than a legitimate grievance. Check out Groklaw sometime -- you'll be amazed at the details of SCO's bumbling and inane attacks.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

I have the T-41, and it is even better than the T-40. I bought the 8 hour battery, and it adds a couple onces to the overall weight, but it is dazzling. The idea of crawling around looking for a plug is history.

I only wish that we could find a way to build ActiveWords for Linux, and not give away our code, which seems contrary to the open source culture which I respect, because I can tell you that ActiveWords on the ThinkPad is dazzling.


Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

Can you give me one more dazzling, Buzz? I'm dazzled.

Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

A guess here, but you might want to investigate the BSD license. Respect for the Open Source culture includes knowing there's more out there than the GPL. Perhaps one of the several license schemes out there will suite your company's needs.



Re: Driving to Laptopia

Anonymous's picture

My old Powerbook pismo dying in installments (bits of black plastic breaking off, battery going (after three years), dvd-player going, screen badly yellowing) meant I had to get a new laptop, too. After much deliberation, I decided to go for cheap & powerful and bought a Dell 5150, the sister of the Dell 5100, but with a Pentium M processor. For good measure, I bought two, since my wife needed a new laptop, too.
Installing SUSE linux on the thing proved to be astonishingly easy -- pop in the CD, have it install a base system, install apt-get for SUSE, update. And then I settled down for the real work: getting the dvd player to work, the cd-burner, connect to my camera, the wifi card, the audio -- the nvidia drivers. But except for the nvidia drivers, everything turned out to work already. Including power managent (cpu frequency scaling, battery monitoring), but not suspend/resume. That's to say: if I boot into 2.6, suspend resume works, but not in 2.4, where I can only suspend, not resume. In a 5GB partition I had reserved for re-installing Windows, I installed Debian, after having found out that the Windows XP CD's the Dell came with couldn't handle the graphics card, but I've still not managed to get even X working.
So, yes -- there is a lot of difference in which distribution works well on a laptop, and SUSE comes out very well for me.