What Are They Using?

I was celebrating Leap Day (February 29) at a London pub with Mark Antony Kent, Head of Technology Strategy at British Telecom, hoping also to pump his brain for insights to follow up on a contentious FCC hearing at Harvard earlier that week—one convened to visit issues around Comcast's valving of BitTorrent traffic. Mark is both a telecom and Internet veteran of long standing, and he's full of exciting ideas about how to work around the congestion issues that got Comcast into so much trouble.

In the midst of this, I learned that Mark was coincidentally a veteran Linux hacker who also packed a lot of lightweight Linux iron around with him. When he began pulling some of this stuff out and showing me what it did, I pulled out my little Canon camera to record his ad hoc demo (which later made a nice little podcast) and to document details I could share here. In brief, here's the gear he talked about and how he uses it:

  • EfficientPC generic Linux box. His came with a MythTV PCI card that comes with its own digial TV tuner and a remote control. “I just plugged it in and it works”, Mark said. Signals he picks up from the BBC and other sources are recorded here, where he downcodes with...
  • MEnccoder, a free GPL'd command line tool for downloading, encoding and filtering for video. The resulting files are then transferred to his...
  • Nokia N800 UMPC (ultra-mobile PC). Here, he stores the shows on a Flash card. The N800 has two slots for these, one inside and one on the bottom. He uses one for video and the other for audio. He showed me a Father Ted show he had recorded, which the N800 organizes with the amazing...
  • Canola media center, which plays beautifully through MPlayer, complete with stereo sound through its little speakers or through a headset. Mark fills up several cards with video and does his telly watching on the train, on a screen far bigger than that of, say, an iPhone. He records audio directly from the FM tuner built in to the N800, or listens live. (The FM radio is a feature sadly missing on the newer N810. Hope it comes back in future versions.) He also stores both video and audio at home on a...
  • Excito Bubba media server, which runs on Debian with the 2.6 Linux kernel. At home, his N800 sees the Bubba's Wi-Fi signal, from which Canola can discover files using the DAAP and UPnP protocols, then list and play them directly. He also has...
  • Two Nokia N770s, which are the predecessors to the N800. He liked them so much that he just had to have two. “Then, when (the N800) came out, I wanted the radio. The 770s also run Canola and play everything from the Bubba.” Mark says, “The 770 has a Samba server as well, which also increases possibilities.” Thanks to these lightweight items, he stopped hauling around a laptop, and instead uses the N800 as his portable computer, thanks to a...
  • Bluetooth keyboard. At home, he also has...
  • Another Linux PC—“an ASUS thing from the EfficientPC guys”, with dual flat-screen monitors. Back on the road, he also can get on the Net by bluetoothing from his handhelds over a...
  • Motorola A780, which is coincidentally Linux-based as well and uses 2.5G “edge” technology. He has also ordered an...
  • ASUS Eee PC for his son. “He's a Mac guy”, Mark said, but “he saw this and really, really wanted one”. Mark is “desperate to get one” as well.

Mark's enthusiasm was infectious, and I caught the bug. After I flew back home to the US the next morning, I immediately started to ramp up my own version of Mark's portfolio of cool tools.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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