Driving to Laptopia

by Doc Searls

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.

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