System.NullReferenceException

Category: Hardware

Dear Nokia

Why did you feel the need to develop the very nice looking N900, probably one of the nicest looking smartphone on the market currently and the leaving it with a battery that falls over after listening to music for a few hours. You should be ashamed of charging so much for the N900 when it is frankly a tablet with the worlds longest extension cord. Also it would be nice you realized we live in the 21th century and that designing your software around 90’s concepts needlessly creates a data silo from which I have to pry my information.

Call of Nouveau testing reply

Christopher James Halse Rogers asked. I thought I would answer in video format (Blip.tv – Flash warning).

A full resolution Ogg Theora file is also available thanks to the awesome blip.tv here.

Also glad to see OMG UBuntu! not only picked up my first video demoing a few of Banshee 1.5.5’a features but also my discovery in the Banshee Community Extensions that UBuntu Mono maintainer and part time superhero Jo Shields is working on an Ubuntu One Music Store Extension for Banshee and in an additional lavishing of much deserved attention to the Banshee project they reported on the merging of the exciting Grid View branch.

A first meeting review of the Nokia N900

The packaging itself is stunning and practical, everything is neatly packaged and the device itself is wel protected to ensure a flawless first experience.

The problem that meets the owner starts before even booting the device for the first time. To insert the battery, SIM card and any additional SD storage on top of the devices ample builtin 32GB storage, one has to enter into a power struggle with the rear hatch. Getting this to pop off requires a lot of force and the hatch feels brittle. Something you definitely don’t want to be the first feeling upon starting the device as the experience will have to be that more stunning. I don’t think this will lend itself to repeated interaction and since that is where the SD cards go it might become for some. Nokia needs to revise this to be polished.

The device itself is fatter than a comparable smartphone such as the HTC Hero I have experience with. It is heavier but comes with a high quality Carl Zeiss optic and a hardware keyboard with that device doesn’t have. It is a trade off I am happy to make but it leaves room to improve with technological advances with future models making the investment and long term commitment to the platform more attractive.

The look and feel of this black giant is good, though slight plastic with a sad touch of cheapness with touch. Not the experience you pay for nor the experience such devices are capable delivering. It is practical and pretty but not stunning.

The hardware keyboard though a bit small is comfortable in use provided none of the cables are attached as they current placement interfere with normal use.

The interface is slightly boring, the icons feel generic and not in touch with the device. It is themable, perhaps something inspired by the monochrome icons in Moblin and Ubuntu Lucid would do well here. The vanishing animation when you dismiss a window is just the right amount of bling to be useful and pretty. Very decent animations when you bring up application menu and it is tailored to not get cluttered at the cost occasionally to depth or lack thereof. Visually these are the only standouts and the interface otherwise feels functional yet a bit dull.

The Skype integration is great and skype to skype call are clear even on a 3G connection. It fixes my main problem with Skype on Android and iPhone devices by being capable and allowed access to the network through 3G making it useful on the go. The interface on Skypes part needs a bit of work especially since the skype-to-skype call option isn’t well placed.

The headset that comes with the N900 is the best I have had when it comes to sound quality, even the mic is of an acceptable quality. Though I wish the sleek style of just having a button to accept calls could be merged with the ease of the HTC Heros headset which allows interaction with the music application in addition to accepting calls.

Maemo as an OS has good features but the boot time of the device isn’t highlighting performance. Given my use of it as an nearly always on device thanks to it’s intelligent profiles.

The profiles are really what makes Maemo elegant and what Android sorely lacks. With an device that is always on capable it’s always you want to be entirely on, e.g. if you are at sleep being on instant messaging and away or busy sometimes isn’t enough but you stll might want Skype on but set to invisible. Maemo allows that. The only thing the profiles really need is a system to manage and categorize alerts. They already intgrated Tracker so they are probably going to increase the semantic component and just needs to be able to filter alerts.

The N900 is a key device in the newly announced MeeGo merger of Maemo and Moblin. Moblin takes performance very seriously and that is likely going to influence the platform. They also care about creating compelling visual interfaces. Maemo might be functional especially on hardware like the N900 but it’s icons and visual presentation needs a bit of a lift to really bring it to wow.

Contact interaction is really Androids strong point, with identity held by Google every contact can basically have every thing hooked in and they do. It is great in use. This part I miss from Maemo, the interface part of their People framework is weak and hard to use effectively. This really needs to be fixed.

The media player is a near master peice, it is powered by Tracker and the end result is stunning. An easy to use, comfortable, elegant interface that is quick. I put in the SD card from my hero which had media on it already and it just appear correctly indexed and available in the mediaplayer without any work, beautiful. My only complaint is that it doesn’t have an equally elegant solutions to audiobooks and podcasts.

The updater works well, when I first got the device I use it to check for updates and one was ready for installation. Downloading and applying the update was all done over the air and with a simple reboot into automatic flashing. Took a few minutes and was entirely painfree. A much better experience than on the Android powered HTC Hero, which forces official updates through a Windows only application. It looks like N900 users are in for a stream of useful bug fixes and experience enhancements unlike the big code drops Android pushes. I would consider this a plus and trust MeeGo to handle this with care in the future.

I’ve played with the camera a bit, it is responsive and takes quality images. Unlike the slow camera in the HTC Hero it is actually something I would consider using frequently. I have never carried a camera with me at all times before, now with the N900 I will, of sorts at least. I am excited about what that might add to life.

The screen feels a bit rough to move around with the finger, requiring force than on the HTC Heros display. This often leads to more force being applied and taken as a pressing action. This really sours the otherwise smooth interaction since you have to be very careful and attentive all the time. Which is normally not what you want e.g. while scrolling long lists of artists.

The lists of applications available to you is extremely small, unlike the firehose of the Apple App store or Androids marked. But those that are there are useful, if they are more ports of existing applications and not something that pushes the frontier like some of the Android and Apple apps. If MeeGo will be able to attract developers I think is helped by it’s openness and use of familiar Linux Desktop components with strong maintainers and good track records with the existing Linux ecosystem.

The standout is the lack of a good todo list, especially as a widget for the home screens. You also lack the easy of integrating mail and calendaring from Android. Androids centralized calendar in my pocket that syncs with the cloud is the first time I ever felt calendars were really useful. Maemo can do this but it doesn’t have the same feel of ease and there is a lot of configuration. The mail application is a disaster, on a device that can play 720p movies and have more processing power than NASA used to send mankind to the Moon.. why have you implemented a mail solution that doesn’t support threading for performance reasons. And then gone and made the interface uncomfortable and old fashioned, this isn’t the 90’s. You have tracker, present the information in useful manner look at the media player and learn. I miss the GMail client from Android and I am so sure the N900 is more than capable of delivering an experience that tops it.. then it present me this relic.

From day one my HTC Hero worked really well with my Ubuntu desktop. Media handled correctly by Banshee and nearly correctly by f-spot. The N900 offers no such joy, however this is not because Banshee isn’t capable, I suspect an OS bug is preventing this from working. The device is correctly detected but it doesn’t work even in USB mass storage mode. I am hoping this gets fixed soon.

I have been enjoying this device for a while and I am very happy with it. Some of that is hopes for MeeGo but the N900 is a great device and I am so far very happy with it. The hardware is sound, they have interesting technology such as Telepathy and Tracker to help them improve the poor elements of the Maemo experience. With MeeGo also comes Moblin and hopefully their work to integrate social elements into the experience. I am eager for the future, don’t disappoint me MeeGo.

Does this droid owner have buyer’s remorse?

This is an reply to the InternetNews.com story: Will Droid Owners Get Buyer’s Remorse?

I recently bought an HTC Hero and while it is a nice phone I have found it to be slow in use and not really fulfill the promise of being much more than a phone.

I’ve learned from it that I would like something that runs a UI experience that is closer to stock Android since the porting of a large change such as the HTC Sense UI takes a long time to complete as the Android base progresses and improves. Time when the user is deprived of updates to improve the experience and instead of slow incremental changes they get rare large code dumps that likely also changes behavior. This causes issues for users learning the basically new phone all over.

I’ve also learned that I would like a hardware keyboard since I am not cut out for on screen typing. Furthermore I would like to see some of the more logic extensions be made to the platform such as letting known friends addresses appear in the map application.

Skype on Android is utterly crippled, there is some kind of restriction being enforced to disallow the application from using the data connection. That sours the experience quite a bit.

All in all while I bought the phone because I needed one and thus had to pick what I thought was the best phone at the moment. I really wish the Droid had been available to me subsidized as I am not ready to pay for an unlocked phone with the mobile contracts as they are currently since it doesn’t save me money.

The HTC Hero isn’t a bad phone but the realistic competetor available to me at the same price was a new iPhone 3GS 32GB and it is certainly an inferior phone to that on many counts.

If you are thinking of going with the Hero to support Open Source then you should also know that HTC adds a proprietary UI and know that it comes with costs though it provides a very compelling UI.

The perfect Android phone might be closer to the Droid or the Nexus One depending on your preference and use cases. They are still slower on things like loading and rendering webpages than the 3GS but the hardware is solid and should support the platform as it expands. You should expect this expansion to be directly and naturally deployed for these phones an thus be improved with updates regularly considering that they are a very standard Android deployment. You could consider it an investment of trust in the platform, it doesn’t quite provide an experience that really beats the the iPhone solidly yet but it has considerable promise and past performance as an indicator will reach it soon. Bet on it coming to these products soon.

I elected to go for openness regardless, I know I have an inferior phone for it. It’s still a good phone but it’s not more than a phone in any really revolutionary way. It’s for people like me hoping to reduce the amount of gadgets I carry by removing my mp3 player, the Hero doesn’t replace a good camera though. Likewise the experience isn’t bad but isn’t really followed through to it’s natural conclusion to the extend competitors have done. Openness outweighted that, even with the encumberance of the Sense UI, for me. It isn’t likely to be the case for a lot of people.

I don’t have remorse for buying an Android phone but I acknowledge that the competition is overall a superior choice for most people right now.

Dear HTC

Considering that snowstorms made going outside unsafe during the last days I could return my Hero we are now stuck with each other so what do you say we attempt to make it a kickass experience instead?

Firstly, drop the Sense UI, I know you invested heavily in it and rely on it to sell phones with a superior UII experience and with Android versions prior to 2.1 that is likely to also have been the case. However you too must realise that it is a burden to have to port it to every new Android release to ensure that your users have the lastest version. You might not think it matters to be on the most recent release but it does, e.g. for reasons of security, unlike an old non-smartphone, my HTC Hero contains a lot of personal data such as contacts, my music, mail, Facebook login information – all information I would like to know is as protected as it can be. Ensuring that you keep up with upstream Android means that any security fixes are obtained at the cost of testing the release against the hardware and ensuring that your users are notified of the update (optimally you could offer to perform the upgrade automatically over the air – it shouldn’t be technically impossible).

Additionally you should get translations for free, when I got my Hero it only had English interface and only after going through a painful upgrading experience did I get Danish support. Being localized for free increases your potential pool of customers vastly, e.g. my mother would never use a phone that was in English, she would use one in Danish though. Working upstream is no big enlightenment for us Open Source people but I realise that it might hard to get right for you, we will be happy to help you. It is true that short term you may suffer a bit due to losing the ability to sell your phones on the preceived superior UI experience but long term you will be able to save money on maintance and development of devices. It would force you to compete on the superiority of your phones design and hardware but I am confident that you can do this as the HTC Hero I have in my hand is a solid design and very pleasing on the eyes even if it could stand to be a lot faster and smoother. People will happily pay for a good phone and with subsidized plans it’s not even going to cost an arm and a leg.

Make it easy to write text in another language without the autocorrecting spell checker doing stupid things such as replacing you with joo (which doesn’t even make sense in Danish). It’s is some what a big deal, the current generation of smartphone users are likely to both need their local language for text messaging friends but email could very easily be in English (or in my case, messages to my fiancée are in English as are 99% of my mails but text messages to my friends are otherwise in Danish). Given my usage pattern typing messages takes forever since I have to carefully correct nearly every word.

Let my contacts appear on the map if an address is known and allow me to define known locations (and let me tie those to contacts). This is pretty much a no-brainer that would enhance the usefulness and user experience of the maps application.

Include a Google Reader application, there are a few news applications in the store but none included in the bundle you get with the phone, however there are applications for monitoring stock prices. I have an overwhelming feeling that more people will benefit from a news reader so please hurry and include one.

Include a todo list program, it is really missing from the standard bundle and no good placefiller exists in the store that integrates well especially with my online experience. I can buy an app to interact with Remember the Milk but for such a simple and fundamental task I really don’t want to pay 15$, especially since Google has a similar todo list I could easily use. Bonus points would be given if it handles situations such as “Remember to buy milk” then being location aware and having access to a list of nearby stores it could beep and remind me that I need to do this if I ask it to.

Increase cooperation between applications, e.g. the other day I was having a text message conversation with an old friend and we arranged to meet up. However there exists no way to simply click the conversation and convert it to a calendar entry (it would also be interesting to be able to convert to a todo list entry since todo list entry basically are calendar entries without a date attached). Bonus points would be given if you can manage to take hints from the conversation for dates and date references such as the day after tomorrow (in multiple languages naturally) to suggest the correct date when creating the calendar entry.

Release specifications so that someone might implement a flashing tool for your devices that works under Linux. It would be nearly entirely free for you to do so and considering the popularity of Android with Linux users (as Android is a Linux platform) it would likely aid a lot of your paying customers. Given a release of specification rather than the release of a proprietary tool such as what you have for Windows would very likely also give you support for the Mac platform for free as well. Such a move would also buy your company a lot of goodwill with the Open Source community and show us that you are want to work with us, such trust is a good investment and can be the thing that tips the scale for buying an HTC device for a number of users. We’d rather own devices from companies that work with us than not and will warn each other of companies that directly work against our interests. Looking at how closed off the iPhone is and how much trouble Linux users have using their devices to their fullest, it would be very likely that distribution wikis would include a recommendation for Android devices and provided that HTC makes it easy for us to include full support a specific recommendation of your products wouldn’t be unthinkable – we are good to those who are good to us.

My stubby finger tips have a hard time hitting those on screen keys, perhaps we could find a solution for this. Hardware keyboards are good but tend to be a problem for localization and slow you down getting to market in a lot of countries. Clearly the on screen keyboard is a good idea but the keys are simply to small. Given the size of the screen it is hard to correct but ideas such as swype show promise to improve the experience. I would suggest spending some research dollars here.

As a general improvement to Android, I would really like an Audible application. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and I would love some means of buying the directly from my phone, download them and add them to my media library. Naturally the DRMed nature of Audibles products is a problem as is their complete lack of support for Open Source and Linux specifically but is a fight we’ll have to take with Audible not Android or HTC.

Finally you should provide a means for advanced users to provide bug reports, several things in your own released ROMs have flaws, given that it is related to your own fork I don’t feel comfortable going to Androids bug tracker and the only means you seem to provide is going through customer service which isn’t an interaction with the development team. This would naturally go away if you moved to providing a vanilla Android experience and you’d get help from the entire Android community to fix your bugs.

Is there an acceptable level of DRM?

I have been giving DRM some consideration lately, specifically with deals such as the Zune Marketplace free pass to millions of songs at 14.95$ a month with 10 free keepers a month would there exist and implementation of DRM I would accept as a requirement for access. While I generally hate DRM and think it punishes paying customers, could one envision an implementation that would be fair?

E.g could one envision a business build on free streaming of DRMed files and DRM free files for purchase so that they allow reasonable access to listen and learn new music but if you want to access the files and do with them what you wish – say use them offline, use excerpts of for a review or a composite video (adding a touch of music to a video project, like a review YouTube show or as a music interlude in a podcast). Would it work and what problems would there be with such a model?

Well first up the technological problems inherent to DRM won’t go away, if the DRM server is down or is removed as has been the case with a number of services already. Then your content stops working, however this would only affect the streaming service as songs you bought and own would be DRM free. Free services disappear all the time for many reasons so I don’t see this as specifically a DRM problem but a consumer support problem, if we don’t back the model then the service will go away. Magnatune runs a streaming service for all their music and the only price you pay for this wonderful access is listening to a little blurb at the end of each song, this works well for independent artists. However I don’t see e.g. Parlophone being ready as a corporation to grant the same level of access to their catalog with the only protection from being ripped off being “trust the customers not to abuse the service and save streams, remove ads and building a full copy without giving us a dime”. That is just not the way they have grown use to doing working and expecting them to attain enlightenment overnight is more than dangerously naive.

I think Magnatune deserves a lot of credit for taking that risk and I am hopefully that it is paying off for them. I think a lot of such a success can be traced back to their stated mission of not being evil, I think customers respect that and having it be highly visible and transparent, such as can be seen in their simple profit sharing that your money actually goes to the artists. As such Magnatune’s “pay what you want” system often is above the minimum of 5$, in other words people aren’t cheap when they feel they are being treated fairly. I have to admit that while there are no limits on the files and I get them in the format I desire even lossless I am still amazed when they encourage me to share my new music with 3 friends. They could have politely asked me not to do that to protect their business as well as their artists and I would respect it because of the beyond fair treatment they give me otherwise and instead send friends to their streaming service to sample my amazing new finds.

Another problem with any technology designed to limit your use of content is that what you will accept now isn’t always what you will accept in the future. E.g. a user might go an buy an iPhone today and not think twice about the limits Apple ensure using lawyers and technology to lock out 3rd parties, if that user some time later elects to move to Linux or just move away from iTunes the consequences of that acceptance hits. Nor did I when the DVD player came out give much thought to the protection schemes built in and how they affected me and I started building what has now become a huge collection of movies and TV shows on DVDs. Not for a second did I consider that the region coding meant that taking my DVDs with me out of Europe would render them unplayable. After all I thought I would live in Denmark all my life and it didn’t limit me then outside of buying DVDs from the US that weren’t available in Denmark and here all players are basically region code free so it was a non-problem. As my situation now might call for a move to Brazil or where ever my fiancée finds the perfect Ph.D. project this might come back to bite me in the nether regions.

Another problem relating to the DVDs is that the CSS protection, is being heavily protected by lawyers, limits my OS of choice from shipping support, I can’t view the content I paid for on my desktop out of the box. While the laws in Denmark would seemingly allow me to break the protection, making such code available could land one in serious trouble of the lose your house flavor. This also means that while he rest of the software stack in Linux is very advanced, DVD support is lacking since no company will risk helping out as it would make them a target, no distro can ship the code leading to the feature being under maintained and under tested. I might legally be able to install such support but frankly it’s in a poor state and close to uselessly broken in some cases for no good technical reason, all of which makes me a sad panda.

Why is this a problem? Well I would like to do to my DVDs what I did to my CDs. Keep the originals safe in a box and access my content the way I please on the devices I please. I would love a way to easily and quickly put my movies on a NAS and let them be transcoded for use on my portable devices, viewable on the TV and other such things. I might even want to use little snippets easily in other projects, like this blog. When I started building my collection a DVD was probably so large that the idea of fitting hundreds of movies onto a harddrive seemed a bit far fetched, not today though. The hardware is cheap and available anywhere, now it’s a good time to do something like this and I can’t easily.

The point is you will agree to some limitation now that might come back to haunt you years from now, if it is enforced by DRM then your only choice is to violate the law to access and enjoy the content you bought the way you want. There are risks involved with this and you cannot be sure that software to do such alternation will be available as companies like to sue those who enable you to do these things.

I honestly though don’t think I can find a single major thing to object about with a scheme which sole purpose is to prevent saving a stream, there will always be people for whom this isn’t enough or people who will be break the protection to keep the content they get free access to. I have no problem going after these people, I really don’t, they have the option of using the entirely free access (perhaps with ads, lower resolution than would be available to buy DRM free), I see no moral argument one could present for doing such a thing. Well there is one, provided the access isn’t equal, then they would deprive users of say Linux from using the free option thus forcing them to buy without trying.

Even an truly dogmatic FSF supporter wouldn’t really be able to argue this is directly evil, while the specific component that unlocks the DRM is very likely to be proprietary (giving you the content, the means to unlock it and the key – that is free access which is unlikely to happen) you would still have the option of playing the content using nothing by ideologically blessed software, provided you buy the content.

Assuming the blob is well written as well as supported on any platfrom and some entity such as the Linux Foundation has access to the code under NDA so we can get an opinion as whether or not unlocking the DRM is all it does. I wouldn’t feel bad about installing such a thing by default on users desktops (again, if you don’t like it, remove it and live with buying your content). We could even restrict the binary with things such as AppArmor or SELinux to ensure it’s not given all out access to reduce the security concerns.

Lots of maybes and assumptions but I think such a scheme would work and hopefully as time progresses, with the support of customers it could be shown that customers can be trusted to not abuse such restriction-less privileges. As for the realism inherent to such an idea, I doubt you’ll get record companies and movie studios to agree to this but on the other hand what Spotify is doing today if I understand it correctly (sadly there is no Spotify in Denmark yet) in the countries where they have gotten the licenses isn’t that dissimilar to the streaming part of the idea, adding a DRM free store wouldn’t be a far stretch.

I think when it comes to DRM free content customers also need to realize that they are asking companies to run a risk of losing revenue, something that is very scary to them, it’s a big shift in the way they have grown used to working and they need to be convinced by the bottom line. They give you an awful lot of power which can be abused and we need to show that the limits they put on content is harmful to paying customers, it holds back creativity and new business models but in return we have to reward them for trusting us by not abusing that trust once they put it in us. Even if we are justifiably angry over past transgressions, the way to settle that anger is not to rip them off when they change for the better.

DRM Free, to paraphrase that cliché from Spider-Man, comes with great responsibility.

A little Acer Aspire Revo r3610 update

In my previous post on my beloved r3610 I mentioned that I was unable to make the bundled wireless keyboard work. I assumed wrongly that the dongle was built into the machine, however after cleaning up my things I found the manual and discovered that the required dongle can be found inside the mouse’s battery bay. Once you can dug it out of it’s holding place, unplug your existing keyboard and insert the dongle in an empty USB port on the Revo then hold the connect button on the keyboard for a few seconds and voila your machine now has a working wireless keyboard.

The same approach should work with the mouse but I have used a trackball for years and love it to death so I haven’t tested this.

I hope this is helpful to other people.

Why I will be returning my HTC Hero

Recently I bought an HTC Hero to replace my old broken phone and to bring me into the smartphone era, something I have been looking forward to for a while. For the most part I have been fairly pleased with the phone as such but it is a device with issues.

1) HTC it ifself

Don’t be under the impression that Android phones magically keep themselves updated over the wire, you have to flash the damn thing. However HTC doesn’t support Linux (nor Mac OS X for that matter). They aren’t even shy about it when I asked tech support how to perform such updates under Linux.

Thank you for your enquiry about the HTC Hero.

Unfortunately we do not support Linux and MAC operating systems but we recommend to query local community forums in the internet dedicated to the Linux platform.

If there’s any other enquiries, please let me know by responding using the link provided and I will be happy to check for you.

So they don’t provide the tools to do the job, but I am welcome to ask the community. On one hand their support department is quick to respond, on the other hand their reply is a worthless pregenerated non-answer. The end result is that Linux and Mac users will be left out of important updates which fix issues, including one might suspect security problems. Thank you HTC for entirely missing the point and endangering your customers.

The wonderful bit of irony here is that the phone underneath is running Linux, so they basically deem that it is good enough for their hardware, but not mine.

2) Performance

I’d heard bad things about the Heros performance in reviews but when I played with the store model I didn’t see any lag. However the lag very clearly appears after a night of idleness and it makes the interface nearly unresponsive. Reviews claim that a firmware update fixes this, however do to Linux being unsupported for the flashing this opens up a whole new dimension of hurt. I finally broke down and acquired access to a Windows XP machine and spend a couple of hours hunting down issues with their flashing tool (which turned out to be rooted in a broken driver for the Android phone as a USB device). After performing this gutwrenching update, the performance issues remains present, on the plus side the interface is no available in Danish which was lacking in the device as it was sold.

3) Poor quality slightly hidden

The Hero feels good in your hand, it has the right weight and size to be comfortable to use. The headset that comes with the package is sufficient to enjoy music or conversation. However the insides aren’t beautiful at all, the GPS is off by several kilometers, the camera is slow and produces blurry pictures. The touchscreen keyboard has keys roughly 1/3 the size of any normal fingertip and the spell checking will constantly replace words like “you” with “joo” unless you specifically stop it.  It’s slow to type on, the response of the device is sluggish and overall it just feels cheap in use… for a device that is supposedly the top of the line model, and at a price that would make even Bill Gates blush I definitely didn’t expect this.

4) Strange arbitrary limits on the software

I really need Skype and I need it to be portable. However on an Android phone it seems that the software is both in beta and from on high is prevented from using your 3G/wifi connection to make calls. There is no technical reason for this to be so, in fact my old phone supported Skype directly and it integrated with my contact list. This appears to be a problem rooted in cell phone providers and Google setting up this requirement which is despicable behavior that leaves my expensive phone less capable than it would be for no good reason. Further research shows that iPhone users are in the same boat but with different limitations (I believe they can only use Skype over a wifi connection). This kind of abuse of power makes smartphones far less appealing and limits application developers creativity and user freedom.

5) There is no easy way to exit applications

As part of the design Android applications never seem to quit, this means that as a user you have to remember to check the browser, close all your additional pages and reset the page that you cannot close to something you are comfortable seeing because the next time you hit the browser icon, this is what will pop up. There is a means of killing applications but you have to dig through multiple hidden menus and enter the castle of slow that is “manage applications”. This is a design decision but given the already sluggish performance, ones impression of the device isn’t exactly enhanced by leaking applications which over time makes the road to recovery a Windows style reboot. You know that you designed a piece of crap when the way to get it back to a useful state for a few hours is to reboot it.

There are good things to say about the device, the Sense UI is beautiful and overall the device is pleasant to the eye with glittery candy being spread for your enjoyment. I’ve had it for a few days now and I have to admit that the calendar application with it’s synchronization to Google Calendar is a wonderful tool that has improved my life leaps and bounds. The screen might be small but it’s clear and very readable, I have found myself enjoying checking Google Reader from my bed and marveling at the power of the mobile webpages as well as the speed of the browser application. In fact I am so impressed by the mobile webpages that for 99% of use I go to these rather than the specially crafted applications for things such as GMail since it’s faster and provides easier access to labels.

You only have about a day and halves worth of battery power so use it wisely, luckily the recharge time is short and since it is done via USB you can be assured access to a source of power pretty much everywhere even without carrying a hefty recharger. The agreement to use USB charging for all modern phones really is one of those no-brainer decisions in retrospect, for years every time you switched phones you got a new brick to carry and nobodies chargers were compatible (often even within different models with the same vendor). The amount of waste and idiocy saved by this is measurable in the real world. It fills my heart with joy to think of, and as a bonus the power brick that is supplied for when a USB port is unavailable has a clever design where you can replace the plug to suit local standards. If only the rest of the device shared this clever engineering and design – verily I submit onto you, the HTC Hero would be a worthwhile investment.

Never the less, today the HTC Hero is going back to the store. I can’t stand the sluggish interface, HTC’s swamy non-support and delivering a frankly broken Skype experience really pushed me over the top. For something I spend this much money on out of pocket not to mention the costs I tied myself to for the “unlimited” data plan I really expected better.

The importance of Open drivers and openness in general

An interesting question was asked on the Ubuntu Forums regarding openness and why some people were reacting the way they are on the issue of proprietary software. The example given was the driver Nvidia provides for their videocards. I wrote this as a response, instead of going into ideologically definitions of freedom I feel that new users might like to see the real world measurable advantages.

Looking at the proprietary closed source nvidia driver which is currently needed for supporting 3D acceleration and many other features supported by this range of hardware. I would like to specifically point to these 4 arguments.

1) Security

It’s several megabytes of code running in your kernel with access to all kinds of things. You can’t see what it’s doing and it has been subject to at least one major security issue. We can’t fix it, if Nvidia doesn’t find the problem worth the effort then we either have to remove the driver or leave users vulnerable to attack as a distribution.

2) Portability

The nvidia driver only runs on the platforms Nvidia deems they can support. This means e.g. that right now PS3 owners who wishes to run Linux on their machines (a fully supported feature from Sony btw. though not on the Slim models) are left without such things as 3D acceleration and video codec acceleration.

3) Stability

Looking over the top kerneloopses a clear trend is that kernels with the nvidia driver (and the ati proprietary driver) are high scoring components of these and related problems. Users can (and have) experience crashes in applications, problems for which the root cause is in code in these modules. Such problems we can’t fix since we aren’t privy to the code, we are depending on the vendor providing such support in a timely fashion. As a Linux distribution you might also encounter problems with users getting a poor experience and thus losing customers – meaning Nvidia in theory could hold distributions at ransom till an open alternative appears with the same functionality or we do as they tell us.

This scenario though due to the public backlash it would cause seems absurd. What isn’t though is that Nvidia has their own development schedule and if we want to develop our software stack we occasionally have to make changes that change APIs and thus breaks the nvidia driver (this has happened). This forces us to either break this piece of the functionality for users when we import the new underlying stack or hold it back till Nvidia decides to release a compatible version. This effectively lets nvidia dictate the development pace and release process of a large part of Linux.

4) Support for outdated/unavailable for sale hardware and saving the environment

Nvidia regularly moves older devices into a subset of their driver called legacy. This driver isn’t well maintained, on purpose to lessen their support burden and naturally to sell new videocards. We thus can’t support users existing hardware, therefor we (though in reality Nvidia) force them to upgrade their machines or stay on their existing platform. Preventing distributions from gaining users and thus also potential customers. It also lessens the applicability of the age old benefit Linux always was known for, running on an old clunker and give it new life.

E.g. I participate in a project that sends old hardware to Africa to use in schools. When the time comes that the machines that come in through the door contain Nvidia chips that aren’t supported we give poor African children machines that do less than they can, are less fun, will interest them less. Making school a less exciting break in what must otherwise be a pretty bleak day.

Yes, I did just manage to invoke starving African kids while making an argument on software. Please do not see this as an emotional argument but rather a matter of making education as appealing as we can to everyone and thereby encourage more people to get engaged. The positive effects of education are hard to deny and pretty much any effort being made to increase the likelihood that people will enter into such programs should be welcomed.

Every time you are forced to upgrade perfectly working hardware to get to a supported version of Linux (even Ubuntu’s Long Term Support releases are only supported for 3½ years on the desktop) you are left with spare hardware. Often this ends up getting thrown out, replacing it thus forces upon us amongst others the following problems:

- Needlessly depleting our natural resources more

- Needlessly imposing more waste which contains toxic chemicals.

- Wasting production capacity

- Wasting money

With Open Source drivers we have the means to take these problems into our own hands.

I hope this is helpful in providing arguments for open drivers. This is a complicated area where we need to convince vendors to work with us and we need to understand that we are asking them to change their culture. They are used to sharing coming only with the exchange of large sums of money in the form of licensing agreements. We cannot expect them to change overnight but we can inform users of the arguments for openness and then together do our best to work with vendors towards greater cooperation on terms that serve the user.

It’s not just a Linux issue, even Microsoft is faced with downsides of not having access to the driver code and being able to update them at will. A study showed that 30% of Vista crashes where caused by drivers from Nvidia. Vista was notoriously poorly received for many complex reasons, it’s is just one problem area.

This is not to pick on Nvidia specifically, I use them as an example as this is a situation that is fairly well documented and many people use this driver.

I love my Acer Aspire Revo r3610

After my desktop died and I had no money to replace it I started using my Lenovo 3000 N100 laptop as my main machine, for the task it was pumped up with another gig of ram but it too started to die. As money is short I had to look around for a quick replacement that would do the trick. I could either build my own or buy something prebuilt, I long ago swore that I wouldn’t waste time building anymore so this left me with the choice of one of these new nettop machines. Having played with with an ATOM powered netbook I was a little skeptical of the performance potential of such a setup for desktop tasks but this was after all a dual core ATOM capable of SMT and 64bit computing, additionally it has the nvidia ION chipset and GPU instead of the under performing Intel parts. Finally the machine comes with S/PDIF sound output and beefy 4 gigs of ram (one of these are taken by the GPU), you also get a set of USB speakers and a wireless keyboard/mouse combo.

The good parts:

The machine is easily mountable using the VESA compliant mount for your monitor, the performance is surprisingly good. The desktop feels snappy and there always seems to be a bit to give from even under load, even video playback without hardware acceleration (I haven’t yet made VDPAU work) is smooth. All your basic hardware is functional out of the box and the machine is very quiet. You get a plentiful 6 USB ports but access when mounted on a monitor they can be unhandy, there is HDMI output but I haven’t had a chance to try this as I lack supporting hardware finally the revo features eSATA. In short a very extendable and capable machine that comes equipped for a multitude of use cases.

The bad parts:

The S/PDIF output is placed on the topside of the machine when mounted in the VESA mount, meaning your fairly inflexible optical cable will hang from a height with no decent way to make it look good without breaking it – a modest suggestion for the next revision would be to put it on the bottom. You need the proprietary nvidia driver to make this run at it’s full potential, something I would rather avoid as I am uncomfortable using it. My Revo came with Windows 7 Home which I now have to fight to get refunded for, for an average user it does mean that you get a machine that will work when you turn it on but I would have liked the option to pick no OS or Linux preinstalled. Finally the wireless keyboard and mouse doesn’t work with Linux for some reason and Google turns up no immediate help as to making them work – mainly here I am interested in the keyboard as I love my trackball. *update* I solved this problem and posted an update here.

All in all, the Revo r3610 is an impressive machine. I am very pleased with it and would wholeheartedly recommend it, not just as a second machine or a media center, it actually makes for a fully sufficient desktop machine and it is a great bargain.

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