I have been an early adopter for many electronic devices, especially mobile ones. I’ve had the dream of walking around with some sort of computing device, ideally connected to the Internet, much longer than it’s been practical.  I went through the HP100LX (which I could hook up to my Motorola Startac phone or my 300 baud modem), the Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 (which ran Linux), and the Psion 5MX.  Then some Palm PDAs, etc.  Unfortunately, the PDA market is pretty much dead.  I really wish I knew why, as it was years between when the PDA market vanished (at least here in the US) and when smartphones became capable of taking their place.

My first smartphone was a Windows Mobile 6.0 phone (bought months before Microsoft declared Windows Mobile 6.x an utter dead end), and eventually an iPhone.  But not the first iPhone.  Or even the second iPhone.  Why?  Because, as groundbreaking and powerful as they were, my research determined they were missing certain key features that I needed to do what I want, and being a relatively closed and restricted environment, those features were not going to be added on by someone else.  I did my research, and said “Not soup yet”.  How do you release a device you say surpasses anything else without cut/copy/paste??!?!?  I am very much NOT an Apple Fanboy, but why, being a Linux Fanboy, would I not go with an Android phone?  because (1) At least at the time, you couldn’t back up or sync any data with an Android phone without surrendering all your contacts, schedule, etc with Google, which is an unacceptable privacy violation to me, and (2) AT&T had modified the phones to be even more locked down than the iPhone!!!  But I wold not have known that if I just simply said “The Linux-based phone must be more open, so let me get that one”.

When the Kindle Fire was announced, I started thinking about getting that device, or something like it (7″ form factor Android device around $200 with a high quality display).  Days later the Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet was announce to be available for sale a week after the Kindle Fire, and I quickly narrowed down my choices to these two.  But the rumors and predicted specs on review sites differed enough I knew I had to wait until they were available and I could play with them.  I ended up developing a detailed, objective comparison between them, and the Nook Tablet won handily (for me. YMMV).  I got active in the Nook Tablet “hacking” community, and even started working on a wiki site on it. My research found that the boot loader was heavily locked down, and while there’s a lot of hacks to load other software and markets and customizations for it, it’s unlikely that a completely new ROM would be loaded on it any time soon.  I was OK with that, because while I wanted to do much more than originally intended with the device, I still wanted it to function as an ereader, too,

I noticed, long after the word had spread that you couldn’t [yet] replace the ROM as you could in its predecessor, that people were buying them and discovering this after the fact, and returning them.  These people had bought this device for $250 or more hoping to load the latest version of AndroidOS on it, use bluetooth keyboards, hook up external hard drives to it, and Skype their friends with it, without spending half an hour finding out whether any of this is possible (none of it is yet, though Ice Cream Sandwich is close)!

This leads to unhappy geeks.  Geeks and hackers, as a group, tend to expect the world to work they way they want it to, or at least be configurable to.  Only big corporations aren’t always on board with this.  In the case of the Nook Tablet, B&N had to lock the tablet down more than its predecessor in order for Netflix to allow streaming on it.  After the security vulnerabilities came out that allowed us to gain root access to the Nook Tablet and load software from wherever we wanted on it, B&N pushed an update to the software that closed those security holes, and that update got installed on Tablets with no warning, and certainly without consent.  There was an endless barrage of flame wars complaining that B&N should not have done that, and “how dare they”.  I would calmly point out each time that B&N was operating in their own best interests (protecting their relationship with Netflix and other companies), and it’s silly and unrealistic to expect B&N to act against their own best interest to enable a small group of people who will never buy books, movies, or apps from B&N to have their fun, any more that one would expect Apple to allow Adobe Flash on the iPhone or Ford to allow you to connect your computer to the diagnostic interface of their cars with a simple USB plug.

So here’s my message: When you’re planning on buying some sort of complicated and/or expensive item:

  1. Make sure you’ve identified exactly what you want to do with it (establish acceptance criteria).  This not only helps you with your research, and help determine when you’re done with it, but it can prevent you from falsely claiming you’ve found “the perfect solution” if you really haven’t.  It also helps convey to others what you’re looking for.  Be honest with yourself.
  2. Make sure you’ve made a reasonable effort to identify all possible items that could meet your needs.  “Premature optimization and/or filtering” can lead to excessive narrowing of the result set.
  3. Make sure you look at both the good and bad features of each item, identifying any deal-breakers.
  4. If you absolutely need a feature, and the device doesn’t have it yet, don’t assume that it will be added in the near future, or ever.  Even barring external influences like regulations and partnerships, their idea of the future of the device may be very different than your own.
  5. If you can afford to wait even a week later, you will benefit from the experience of the others who were not so thorough.  Learning from other peoples’ mistakes is much cheaper than learning from your own.  Learning from other peoples’ successes can save you hour of research.
  6. If you can’t find evidence either way whether the device can do what you want it to or not, don’t be afraid to ask.  And ideally, spread the new knowledge.
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I’ve been using Linux/UNIX for about 20 years.  I am also Assistant Director of the Boston Linux and UNIX Group, and have contributed to several open source products.  In general, I find open source software more flexible, more transparent (no security through obscurity), and more focused on what’s needed instead of what marketing says would be cool.  I like that open source software is usually developed modularly, with separate components each doing what they do well, each designed to be combined with other component, each with its inputs and outputs documented for fitting Tab A into Slot B.    Open source’s community support model (with a sufficiently large community) is often far superior to calling tech support.  All that said, I still believe very strongly in “the right tool for the job”.  Sometimes open source is not the answer.

Just like commercial software, it’s important to evaluate not only how well the software suits your need, but the “health” of the product and its creators.  Just because it’s still available doesn’t mean it’s still supported, updated, and in common use.  That may not be a deal-breaker for you, but it does need to be factored in to the decision.

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I am a Knowledge Geek.  I like collecting knowledge, searching knowledge, and organizing knowledge.  If you read my post on [post=”give-me-liberty” text=”my recent cellphone research”], you know what I mean.  I take notes at most meetings and conference I go to.  That often turns out to be very advantageous, especially on longer-term projects where it could be important to find out when a particular decision was made, by who, and why.  I’ve always named the files staring with the group/project/company name, followed by a YYYYMMDD timestamp, and optionally a topic after that, so finding things isn’t too hard.  The larger problem I started facing recently though, is I have been taking notes on multiple computers.  I needed a way of making sure I had access to at least some of these notes when and where I need them.

Up until fairly recently, I had my server and my laptop. All notes were taken on the laptop (and backed up to external USB drive).  Then I got an iPhone, and found note-taking on that quite practical (using QuickOffice).  Then I got a netbook (Dell Mini 10), and started using that for meetings (after I got the netbook, I didn’t use the iPhone for note-taking very much).  The end result was these meeting notes were not where I needed them.  I needed a way of synchronizing these notes between computers.
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“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.

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Those who know me will back me up on this; I evaluate things fairly.  You will never hear me say $FOO is clearly superior than anything else, and there’s no reason for anyone to use anything else. That includes Linux and Linux distros.  I calls them as I sees them, and I do not feel that Linux is always better in every situation for every user, nor is one distribution/brand of Linux clearly the best for all situations.  And I’ve been using Linux since Red Hat 4.2 in 1997 (I still have the disks).

I recently installed Ubuntu Karmic (9.10), waiting a few months after release as I usually do so the major bugs are already fixed, and ran into many more problems than I expected.  I find this unfortunate, because one of the main reasons I switched from Fedora to Ubuntu is no longer valid.  Some of this post is about this release, and some is about the state of Linux in general.

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