UpFront

The UpFront Section

UpFront

LJ Index, October 2007

1. How many dollars more a Linux-based Dell Inspiron 1420 cost over the same one running Vista, before the mistake was corrected: 225

2. How many dollars less a Linux-based Dell Inspiron 1420 cost under the same one running Vista, after the mistake was corrected: 50

3. Corrected base price in dollars for the Dell 1420 Inspiron notebook running Ubuntu: 774

4. Number of case color choices for the 1420: 8

5. Percentage of computers refurbished by the Alameda County Recycling Center (ACCRC) that run Linux: 100

6. Price charged by ACCRC for taking in any computer: 0

7. Price charged by ACCRC for taking “anything that you can plug in to a power outlet” other than large noncomputing appliances and monitors and TVs with no source: 0

8. Price in cents charged per pound for taking in monitors and TVs with no source: 50

9. Thousands of supported Linux systems given away per year by the ACCRC: 1

10. Thousands of new Apache sites found by Netcraft for its July 2007 survey: 556

11. Thousands of new Google sites found by Netcraft for its July 2007 survey: 592

12. Millions of new Microsoft sites found by Netcraft for its July 2007 survey: 2.4

13. Apache's percentage share of all active Web sites surveyed by Netcraft: 49.98

14. Microsoft's percentage share of all active Web sites surveyed by Netcraft: 35.48

15. Google's percentage share of all active Web sites surveyed by Netcraft: 4.35

16. Google's percentage share of all active Web sites surveyed by Netcraft in July 2006: 0

17. Apache percentage advantage over Microsoft in July 2006: 33.4

18. Apache percentage advantage over Microsoft in July 2007: 14.5

19. Percentage of North American developers targeting Linux in 2007: 11.8

20. Percentage increase of the above over 2006: 34

1–3; 18–20: DesktopLinux.com

4–7: APPC (www.accrc.org)

8: ZaReason, Inc.

9–17: Netcraft.com

Ten Questions for Sean Moss-Pultz

When iPhone launched in late June 2007, Newsweek snarked, “Not since Moses parted the Red Sea has anything this miraculous appeared on earth. Will it cure cancer?” Meanwhile, the OpenMoko Project has been hard at work providing earth with a Linux-based cure for iPhone.

We've covered OpenMoko a number of times already, but all were before iPhone parted the seas of mainstream ink otherwise being spilled on war, politics and Paris Hilton coverage. So, we interrupted the overbooked time of Sean Moss-Pultz, Program Manager of OpenMoko, to probe his thinking about OpenMoko in a post-iPhone world.

LJ: First, can you give us a point-by-point comparison of OpenMoko with iPhone?

SM-P: You can check this out: wiki.openmoko.org/wiki/IPhone.

LJ: But really, OpenMoko is not an “open-source alternative” to iPhone?

SM-P: No, not even close. We're in a totally different market. The last thing on earth I want to do is start copying the iPhone—no offense to Apple. They've built a beautiful product, but do we really need another closed, locked-down phone?

Fundamentally, we're totally different. End-user Freedom is our passion. Apple is about giving you an incredibly polished experience—exactly how they want you to have it. End users really have no freedom. They cannot change the device if they don't like the way Apple chooses to make things. OpenMoko is the anti-iPhone.

LJ: So, you're pro-FOSS?

SM-P: The entire OpenMoko system and application software are built using free and open-source software (FOSS).

On the system side, OpenMoko uses software with a tireless history of success and stability, such as the Linux kernel, the GNU C library, the X Window System and the GTK+ toolkit, to name only a few. OpenMoko is Mobile FOSS.

Apple won't even give you an SDK for the iPhone.

We give you everything for Free—exactly the same tools that we use internally. We want you to change this device—personalize away to your heart's content.

I like to describe OpenMoko as a movement to create an open platform that empowers people to personalize their phones, much like computers, in any way they see fit.

Apple makes sure their entire software stack stays closed. We chose to make the entire software stack open. From a control standpoint—the things corporations love—this borders on insanity. But, I think by pushing these borders, we will let loose the possibility for immense innovation.

Innovation, in my opinion, is seldom found within the endless cubicles of a large corporation. Most commonly, it manifests itself within the intense focus and concentration that all individuals seem to have access to when they stare at a single problem long enough.

Staying with a problem long after most would quit is a luxury few companies can afford. Instead, I want to focus on the fundamentals—the framework—to use a more specific term. This includes the following parts:

  • UI—common look and feel for end users.

  • Data—common storage model for applications.

  • Libraries—common platform for developers.

We believe these are some of the key areas to solidify for innovation to form. And, we believe this will benefit not just my company (FIC), but everyone who uses a mobile phone.

We really try to make things as easy as possible for developers. Software-wise, our platform is still in the early stages, but things are moving fast. It's an incredibly exciting time for us now.

LJ: Does OpenMoko see verticals as the key to breaking open the twin silos of phone makers and carriers? If so, which ones? You mention “major corporations, Fortune 500s, hospitals, real estate, engineering, the arts....” Is OpenMoko downstream with any of those? How?

SM-P: Enterprise is a very interesting vertical market for us now. I can't mention exactly whom we're talking with currently, but it's all the big names. If you think about this, it makes total sense. They have huge IT budgets and the ability to put scores of people working on custom solutions. More and more they also are running GNU/Linux on the server. So, having another client (besides cumbersome PCs) makes for quite a value proposition.

LJ: Here's why we ask. Steve Jobs said the iPhone is closed to developers at Cingular's (now AT&T's) request. Companies like AT&T generally don't like open phones. Yet, we have evidence that phone makers and carriers will both open up and make exceptions for big vertical buys.

SM-P: Yeah, I think this will be a huge market. I mean, most everyone I know in business uses company phones. Why not let the company personalize the phone for its employees?

LJ: Who are the early developers, exactly?

SM-P: Hackers, developers, technologies, hobbyists...students...really, we've seen so many people it's mind-boggling. I'm totally blown away by the sheer volume of interest we are getting now.

This is quite a pleasant surprise. Sure, we thought an open phone would shake things up a bit. But this is more like an earthquake.

LJ: What are we seeing in pickup from different parts of the world?

SM-P: Well, I would say it's still mainly a western thing. Europe and the US represent most of the e-mails. But, South America, Africa and Asia now are really starting to pick up pace. It's really getting global!

LJ: Jonathan Schwartz of Sun showed off an OpenMoko phone, no? What more is coming of that?

SM-P: Yeah, that was our Neo. I really can't make any more comments than that now. Sorry.

LJ: How do you see the open-phone market developing? In what ways will it resemble and/or differ from the “white box” computer market in which Linux grew?

SM-P: Oh, great question. I think the market will be quite different. In the embedded system world, there is just a tighter level of integration between hardware and software.

LJ: What about other phone uses, such as camera, texting, audio (for example, podcast) recording and music/video playback?

SM-P: We need to open the mobile ecosystem. A mobile phone has the potential to be a platform that can do anything that a small computer with broadband access can do.

For the people pushing this project, an open phone is not really even a product. It's the very embodiment of our vision of technology. We absolutely, passionately, believe that something as fundamental to our lives as the mobile phone must be open.

diff -u: What's New in Kernel Development

Ondrej Zary has produced a new free software driver to support IRTouchSystems touchscreens. The manufacturer releases only closed-source drivers, so Ondrej had to hack into the data flow itself and do his own analysis in order to understand how to interact with the hardware.

There's a new performance monitoring tool on the block. Mark Seger has been coding and tweaking his collectl tool (collectl.sf.net) for about four years, and he finally has decided to release it under a free software license. It tracks a whole bunch of system stats and displays them in various formats. Mark has invited everyone to use it, abuse it and send him bug reports. Although because it already has been in use on his personal system for years, it probably is quite robust and stable.

Intel's coming out with some new IOMMU hardware, aka Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, and Anil S. Keshavamurthy has posted a patch to support that hardware in Linux. There is still some question as to whether the code is quite ready to be integrated into the kernel—Andrew Morton thinks it might be too slow—but overall, Anil's work has received plenty of support, and it is excellent to see Intel being so proactive in supporting its hardware.

Chris Mason has been working on BTRFS (BTRee filesystem), a new effort aimed at data integrity. As Albert D. Cahalan said during the discussion following Chris' announcement, storage hardware can't really be trusted, so filesystems have to take up the slack and make sure users' data doesn't get lost. BTRFS seems to be finding a lot of support among kernel developers; however, it's still in the early stages and shouldn't be used for any kind of production environment yet. One of Chris's main ideas is to keep data integrity support simple, even if it means not implementing fancier features that may be popular among other filesystems.

Every once in a while someone decides to dig out one of the particularly ugly parts of the kernel and fix it up nice. Nick Piggin has done that recently with the buffer layer. This is the part of the kernel that deals with block devices, tracking a variety of data, including the status of writes to particular disk blocks. Nick's replacement, fsblock, is a much cleaner, shinier implementation. Among other improvements, fsblock's support for large block sizes is much simpler and nicer than what was there before. His code also avoids the deadlocks common to the existing version. But, although these and many other improvements definitely are great, fsblock is still in the early stages of development, and folks like Jeff Garzik are concerned that other aspects of the buffer-layer problem space may force fsblock's code into nastier and more tangled knots. So far, the only filesystem Nick has ported to use fsblock has been Minix, a famously simple and academic filesystem intended for student consumption. The more complicated journaling filesystems, such as ext3/4 and ReiserFS, will be the real test. And, even if fsblock eventually does rise to that challenge, developers like Christoph Hellwig don't think Nick's improvements are significant enough to justify replacing the whole buffer layer and porting all that filesystem code.

ZaReason It's Good

In the last couple issues' UpFront sections, we've followed Dell's toe-dipping into the surging demand for Linux-based laptops and desktops. It's important, however, to look at the other end of the corporate scale for gear sources as well. EmperorLinux and LinuxCertified are two familiar standouts there. A new one starting to get attention is ZaReason, Inc., in Berkeley, California.

ZaReason grew out of family volunteer work at the Alameda Computer Recycling Center (see the LJ Index this month for some interesting stats about the ACRC) and crafts cheap, high-quality machines, intended mostly for hands-on techies. “Typically, we ship to longtime Linux activists who want fully open-source machines, but do not have the time to research components and configurations”, says the company's About page.

Check 'em out: www.zareason.com/shop/home.php.

A Ticket out of Poverty

Looking beyond the walls of our temporary office in Nairobi, Kenya, one can see fences with barbed wire and security guards near any building audacious enough to show a sign of wealth. Everything seems brown here, from the dust on the roads and in the air to the rusty tin roofs protecting most residents from the sun and rain. We are in Kibera—with an estimated 1.5 million residents, it is the largest slum in Africa.

Our project is unconventional, for not only do we avoid hiring security guards, we also were invited by the youth within the community. We find ourselves here to run a media development project, powered by open-source software. We avoided most travel warnings and, to some, left our common sense at the border when we chose to bring laptops and digital cameras to one of the poorest areas in the world. Many residents in Kibera live on a few dollars a day, grappling problems like HIV/AIDS and malnutrition, and have never used a computer before. When we arrived, however, we were greeted by quick-learning youth interested in trying new technologies and media tools to improve their lives and the state of their entire community.

This is the second such project that Five Minutes to Midnight (FMM, www.fiveminutestomidnight.org), a youth-led organization from Canada, is running. Initially started to promote youth involvement in human rights through media and journalism, FMM launched the Article 13 Initiative (A13I, www.a13i.org) in December 2005 to promote the use of open-source software in media projects in developing countries. Its pilot project took place that December and the following January in N'Djamena, Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world.

With a base operating system of Fedora Core and packages, such as The GIMP, Inkscape and OpenOffice.org, the project began through a partnership with Rafigui, Chad's only national youth-led newspaper. It provided technical training to a dozen youth with the aim of helping sustain the Rafigui newspaper. The project was a resounding success, with follow-up workshops taking place in Burkina Faso in January 2006 and Rafigui now planning its own open-source software-focused workshops for the near future.

Now, in July 2007, FMM is finishing a new set of workshops in Kenya with a local organization called Shining Hope for the Community (SHOFCO). Working with 20 youth from Kibera, the seven-week project focuses on training in open-source software and journalism, as well as exploring how Web 2.0 tools can be used within international development. The seeds of the project were planted informally almost a year ago, when SHOFCO received a small grant to purchase a printer and received an Ubuntu CD in the mail. The printer helped them start the first community-run newsletter in Kibera, while the CD instilled a sense of technical curiosity in the youth. Even today, a year later, we get requests to teach some of the young people how to use Ubuntu.

One of the biggest advantages of open-source software and using or creating openly available resources is that such projects easily can be initiated by others. What is surprising is that such projects can end up costing very little and have incredibly fast results. If driven by a motivated organization, the projects often can be sustained long past the initial workshops and have an immense potential to help many people.

The best piece of advice for starting such a workshop is to be flexible, open-minded and to think critically about the work being done. Such questioning should focus on everything from the general idea of using open-source software to specifics, such as which printer drivers to include on a resource CD. Even the idea of using open-source software was not a trivial one when initially planning workshops in Chad. The specific tasks of newspaper creation—text editing, layout design, photo editing and illustration—are well supported by open-source software packages, such as OpenOffice.org, Scribus, GIMP and Inkscape, but the same may not be true for tasks related to video production or animation.

Technical questions are but a small subset of the ones you will need to answer, and most questions are difficult to fathom or predict. Traveling from a wealthy country to a relatively poor one comes with many challenges surrounding power structures and stereotypes. An illustrative example comes from a former workshop participant, who warned his teachers that students will stay silent, smile and then nod out of respect for the instructor, even if they do not understand a single word.

Teaching anything about computers to new users is not easy, and the difficulty is compounded when students only have a basic level of literacy or the language of instruction is not their first language. A typical response to such challenges is localization. Indeed, one of the advantages of using open-source software is the ability to customize user interfaces, either by modifying labels or going the extra mile and re-inventing entire user interfaces. Although many Linux distributions sport numerous languages, incorporating them into lessons is controversial at best.

The linguistic history of Africa, like any other continent, is complex, and many languages tend to be oral ones, with either no written versions or ones that are barely taught in schools. For example, Swahili is very popular as a spoken language in Kenya, but most people learn to read and write in English in schools in Kibera. Working in Swahili is seen as substandard to English, even if it is conversationally easier. A further problem is that although the operating system may be localized, the likelihood that every package within it is also localized is small, especially if the language being considered is not mainstream. Even with apparently French packages, some help files would say, “To be translated” (in English), causing a great deal of confusion to French-speaking students in Chad.

No matter how difficult the software or seemingly ineffective the lesson plans, most students are happy to be given an opportunity to acquire technical training and will, in fact, learn a great deal. We have noticed this regardless of operating system, be it Fedora Core or Windows, or whether we're teaching programming in Java or text editing in OpenOffice.org. The most important aspect of the technical plan should be its simplicity in terms of maintenance and sustainability. Indeed, if you make sure that the computers function long after you are gone and are well stocked with tutorials and books providing instructions on software packages, there's a good chance students will go out of their way to learn what's available—just make sure your local partnering organization provides the security to store those resources and gives your workshop participants the ability to access them.

In this sense, it is often best to avoid complex software or hardware configurations. For our work, we often prefer laptops—they're cheap to transport, have only one plug and use battery power when electricity is unavailable (which can be a major problem in Chad and Kenya). We also avoid setting up complex network configurations or user accounts, unless this is something we can teach within the workshops themselves.

Even if the workshops go well and you end your multiweek experience in bliss, there's often one difficulty creeping about: practical applications. All effort is for naught if, at the end of the weeks, there is no longer-term plan for how the software will be used to improve the organization or start new projects. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the importance of focusing workshops around a project and how FMM works specifically with organizations interested in printed media. In this case, we often make a newspaper issue based on workshops and assume the lessons learned will be used to improve the newspaper. In some cases, the benefits may be more direct, such as helping participants get job offers to move beyond the poverty that has plagued their lives.

In many cases, there are no easy answers to questions raised about planning a media development project. Indeed, international development is fraught with ethical issues and cultural challenges. One of the most difficult aspects of such work is that although a project may last several weeks, the end result is the teacher leaving and returning to a lavish lifestyle, while the participants may remain in impoverished areas for years to come, if not their entire lives. Nevertheless, such projects are worthwhile because they bring hope to the communities they focus on, and instructors and organizers often gain unforgettable friendships and experiences. So, the next time you have a vacation or a few weeks free, consider getting involved in such a project. In such cases, open source is more than a software paradigm—it is a ticket out of poverty.

They Said It

When something that was originally scarce starts becoming abundant, something strange happens. You find that you start making money because of that thing rather than with that thing. That's the Because Effect.

Non-open-source users typically use price as a factor in their decisions. They think that a more expensive computer will be faster, more sturdy, and will last longer. That's not necessarily true. It is definitely not true in software, and it is becoming less true in hardware....We believe that all our other worthy goals (such as gaining market share for Linux) will be accomplished best by a myopic, utterly self-absorbed focus on solid hardware and honest customer support.

—Cathy Malmrose, CEO, ZaReason, Inc., allaboutubuntu.wordpress.com/2007/06/26/zareasons-ceo/#more-62

Today Gates openly concedes that tolerating piracy turned out to be Microsoft's best long-term strategy. That's why Windows is used on an estimated 90% of China's 120 million PCs. “It's easier for our software to compete with Linux when there's piracy than when there's not”, Gates says. “Are you kidding? You can get the real thing, and you get the same price.” Indeed, in China's back alleys, Linux often costs more than Windows because it requires more disks. And Microsoft's own prices have dropped so low it now sells a $3 package of Windows and Office to students.

Bottom line—this was an oversight, pure and simple.

—Dell spokesperson, on why the Linux-equipped Inspiron 1420s at first appeared to cost more than Vista-equipped ones, www.desktoplinux.com/news/NS9933912441.html

It's clear that a shift away from Windows began about two years ago, and the data show that this migration is now accelerating. Linux has benefited, but we also see corresponding growth in niche operating systems for nontraditional client devices. The landscape is changing.

—John Andrews, Evans Data Corp., www.evansdata.com/press/viewRelease.php?pressID=51

None of this technology is optimally applied to getting laid.

—Jeff Waugh, talk at Guadec 2007

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collectl

Mark Seger's picture

Since the mention of collectl in October, see http://collectl.sourceforge.net/, I've added support for process I/O stats, the new slub allocator and the reporting of interrupts by cpu. I've also added documentation to the website including some examples, a tutorial and variety of other topics. Be sure to check it out and tell your friends. Also let me know what you think as I'm always looking for feedback, including The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
-mark

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