Give Me Liberty And Give Me Bugs

“Give Me Liberty And Give Me Bugs” is a quote by Martin Owens, leader of Ubuntu Massachusetts and fellow BLU (Boston Linux and UNIX Group) member.  You see, it all started innocently enough with a thread on the BLU list about the iPad.  The flames hadn’t actually reached the second floor yet, so I decided to squirt some napalm on it by mentioning that (1) I just bought an iPhone to replace my dead-end Windows Mobile phone, and (2) I have given up on trying to sync music and PDA data with Linux, and am now using an old beater Windows XP laptop just for syncing and backing up my phone.  You see, I’m a PDA geek.  I track lots of metadata about my calendar events, contact data, tasks, etc.  Since the PDA as a separate device is pretty much dead at this point (s0b) I rely on finding third party software for my phone.

But back to the argument.  There were two dominant camps.

  1. Those that see any vendor lock-in techniques, DRM, planned obsolescence, and anything that prevent you from doing whatever you want with something you own, as an affront to nature, and should be illegal.  They would rather have Open Source/unencumbered products that didn’t quite work right than locked-down commercial products that work very well, but only in the One True Way as determined by the vendor.
  2. Those that see companies as entities that will generally focus on their own goals, charging as much as they can get away with for as little as they can get away with, targeting their products towards the target audience they choose.  They feel to expect otherwise is being idealistic.  One should act accordingly, and not act shocked when Apple releases a new version five months after you buy one.

My Windows Mobile phone is one of the earlier ones, the AT&T 8525 (HTC TyTN).  When I called HTC for support, they had trouble finding that model on their system.  It was stuck at Windows Mobile 6.1, but that wasn’t the real problem, since ALL of Windows Mobile 6.x is a complete dead end, and I expect Windows Mobile 7 to fail as epically as it is late.  The problem was that the OS got munged to the point that my only recourse was to hard reboot it back to factory settings.  AKA, the last straw.  Being on AT&T, I had 2 smart phone options, the Apple iPhone, and the Motorola Backflip.

The Apple iPhone

The iPhone is an Apple product, and all that entails.

  • You know you’re not gonna be able to make it work differently than how they want without a lot of work and sacrifice.
  • You know it will only be fully supported for two years at the most, and will be obsolete within 6 months.
  • You know the UI will not necessarily be powerful or obvious, but it will at least be pretty consistent.
  • You know it will not play well with its kissing cousin, Linux.

The Motorola Backflip

The Backflip is a Motorola product, running Google’s Android OS.  Android is actually based on Linux.  How cool is that?  It turns out, not so much.  Because AT&T has decided to:

  • Replace several of the important Android applications with their own versions
  • Changed the software installer so you can only install apps from Android Market and you can’t uninstall the AT&T specific applications
  • They removed the Google Search and replaced it with Yahoo Search

In other words, this supposedly open source OS phone is just as locked down as the Apple product!!  There are other problems with this phone, like:

  • It’s running an older version of the OS than was available at the time
  • Some say it has performance issues (which may be why it runs an older OS)
  • It will not sync with any desktop applications, so your data is in the clouds beholden to their security and privacy practices
  • The keyboard has very small keys with almost no throw or feedback, cramped together due to the camera and flash.  In fact, several of the demo units I saw in the store had a ripped keyboard membrane.

But that’s not the focus of this article.  I will concede that this is the vendor locking this model down, not the manufacturer, but how does that make a difference to the end user?  That’s the Android phone available to me as an AT&T customer (unless I want to pay $600 for an unlocked one).  The bitterest irony of this is that I left Verizon because I was furious over their disabling of features (Bluetooth profiles, photo transfers, etc) on their higher-end phones.  Can’t a geek catch a break?

The Argument

The Freedom Fighters feel that we should not support evil companies like Apple and Microsoft that do their damnedest to make sure their products only get used in a very narrow set of cases which restrict contributions from third parties, distance us from our own data, and knowingly ship inferior products so they can release better ones later with less work.  Even if the perfect Open Source/unencumbered solution is not available, going with a possibly-incomplete and/or possibly-slightly-broken solution that you have near total control of is strongly preferred.  And if there’s something close, you can be pretty sure soon enough The Bazaar (including yourself) will improve it to the point where it does what you want.  Moreover, the Open Source community should actively work towards making such practices illegal.  Certain other countries are actually closer to this stance than the Big-Business-friendly US, but even the EU is starting to push back on the Open Document Format movement, letting Microsoft sweet-talk them once again into ignoring it’s anticompetitive practices.

The Pragmatists feel that we should prefer Open Source solutions, to the point that they let us down, at which point we should look for something that Just Works.  That the behavior of these companies are entirely predictable, and one can make sound cost/benefit decisions based on that, and decide whether it is personally better (lower cost, faster completion time, reduced therapy bills) to go with a proprietary solution or an Open Source one.  Work for the situation to change, yes, but do not hold your breath until either these companies see your point of view or the federal government forces them to play nice with others.  The reality is that the small gains the Open Source/unencumbered movement has made in recent years (pushback on the FCC and RIAA, for instance) have pretty much been canceled out by losses in large corporations doing what they do best; serving their own needs.  And their needs are not served by putting effort into catering to the teeny-tiny geek market that wants that level of control, and has the knowledge to use it without breaking their perfect product.  For that matter, the federal government’s needs are not served by catering to this teeny-tiny geek contingency of voters at the expense of large tax-paying, paycheck-paying, endorsement-paying corporations.

This debate, once I threw my hat into the ring, was not just about the phone, but about syncing the phone, backing up the phone, and copying music onto it.  I also have an iPod Classic 120GB, and that enters into the picture, too.

  • There is only one Linux program (available for Ubuntu, anyway) that has true synchronization with iPods, as opposed to manually selecting a bunch of music files to copy over, and that’s Banshee.  It has a lot of great features, but it also has some pretty significant bugs.  Because I have a 120GB player, and over 6,000 MP3 files (all completely legal), I ran into one of them.  Syncing crashes at a particular point, because they used an Integer instead of a Long to hold the size of the database.  How pathetic is that?  I filed a bug report and brought it up on the list, but they refuse to fix it, insisting that other more important bugs need to come first.  First of all, that’s quite the show-stopper.  Second, how hard can it be to change the Integer to a Long and retest?
  • In Ubuntu, and other Gnome-centric distributions of Linux, the official media player is Rhythmbox.  However, it’s not very actively maintained, and the latest release number is a telling “0.12.8”.
  • The next most popular tool is gtkpod, which is very low-level and not very user-friendly, though fairly powerful.  However, when I search the Internet (and their issue database) for solutions to serious problems I’ve had with it, I see a lot of “Me  too” and not a lot of “Here’s how to fix it”.

The Irony

Apple, as I’m sure you’re aware, keeps tight control over what applications are available in their app store, and what those apps can do.  For instance, apps are generally not allowed to communicate over the USB cable.  What some applications do to get around the problem is they include mini built-in web or FTP servers to transfer files back and forth.  That means those programs can communicate with any application with a web browser!  And that includes QuickOffice, the application I use to create and edit Word, Excel, and text files.

The conclusion

As a data geek, I have always been in the minority.  In the past, it was always hard to find the tools I needed, but there was usually one or two around that were ahead of their time; the HP 100LX (real programs, real comms, real rugged) , the Psion 5MX (Record linking and relationships like the Semantic Web we keep pretending exists), the Sharp SL-5000 (Linux in my pocket!).  That ere appears to be over.  PDAs hardly exist as a product anymore.  For the most part, what you do with the devices you “buy”, the media you “buy”, the cars you “buy”, the insurance you pay for, is being restricted.  I’m willing to pay more, but they’re just not making that kinda stuff anymore.  The Open Source community is trying to step up to the plate, but is hindered by lack of focus on things the developers don’t think are cool, and blockage by proprietary hardware, drivers, and protocols.  And for this I am sad.

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