The Two Most Urgent Tasks: Simplicity and a Keyboard
Cathy Malmrose of Linux hardware firm ZaReason asks the GNOME community to solve the two biggest pain points she sees.
I build hardware. I love using a little screwdriver to take off the panel on my laptop to look inside. I especially love the laptop that a developer at our shop has in R&D – a 17.3” screen 1920×1080 res (better than my 50” screen at home), a core i7 processor, 12 GB triple channel RAM, 3 hard drive bays, 2 video card slots which can have an ATI Radeon 6970 or an nVidia GTX 460M, 470M or 485M, then a bunch of USB ports and other cool things (like RAID 0, 1, or 5). Why that much power in a laptop? Because just the thought of it makes me giggle and I have seen more than a few hardcore developers laugh in a similar way then they consider having that much power in their backpacks.
We are doing what we can to build out a hardware line that is optimized for various free and open distros. We have plenty of work to do on our end, but when a developer or group of developers ask us, “What do you need?” we jump at the chance to let them know.
First – this will hopefully make some developers salivate – we would like to launch an open tablet. All we need is a context-sensitive on-screen keyboard, a few final tweaks, and we would be launching the first tablet that is released with its source code: the first non-iPad tablet to not violate copyright. Just having a non-violating machine available will put pressure on the dozens of companies that are launching Android tablets without the source code. There is currently a mass violation of the GPL by every Android tablet vendor who is not releasing the source code with the hardware. There are a few promises of releasing it later, but that is a bit like dousing someone with water then telling them you will get them a towel to dry off, maybe in a month or two. For the people reading this piece, people who like to improve the code base, it is unpleasant to not have access to the code.
Why can we not release the code? If we wanted to launch a tablet with Android we could have and would have last year. But with Android, since it contains some Apache licensed parts, the OEMs do not have to release it. We have brilliant staffers on board who could make a tablet work fine, but without passing the code along to you, fellow computer users, we are no better than any of the other greedy corporations out there. Even Google is now saying they won’t release the code for Android 3.0 any time soon, even though it used it on an already-shipping tablet.
We have strong and active connections with some of the best manufacturing plants. We have a tablet designed that is ultra-sturdy, has sleek, eye-catching design, day-long battery life, the full package, except for the most important part – the code. We do not need the code to do our work, but we do need to be able to provide it to you.
Why can’t we release a tablet with GNOME? The code is available, we could pass it on, and it would provide a much more solid and usable foundation. But we can not, because the context-sensitive on-screen keyboard is not available. We simply do not have the time to make such a significant contribution to the code base. We make our small contributions and send them upstream, but if we pursued this, even as tantalizing as it is, it would distract too heavily from our core focus – getting free and open source computers out to the people who need them.
We have spoken with several organizations that support the development of free and open software. And it appears that, as always, the final solution will come from the developers who are, as always, generously donating their time to implement and test new features.
Since we opened in 2007, we have had people asking us, “Will you ever launch a tablet? Please do a tablet?” We had a tablet ready in the summer of 2010 and would have launched it (allowing the iPad to make tablets popular) except for that one little detail – we must be able to pass the code along to you. Personally, I am motivated to get this done. A month ago Peter Mui of Fix-It Clinic fame gave our family a tablet he was not going to be using. I saw the way my children played with it and used it to do good things.
Second, we need simplicity. Bloat and feature creep can take down even the best projects. An ability to kill “the extras” for the sake of simplicity and ease-of-use rules in the end. How is GNOME faring in this regard?
Please listen into to a conversation I had with the ZaReason CTO, Earl Malmrose:
Cathy: “So, what do you think needs to be fixed? Most urgently? Think: GNOME community.”
Earl: “Hum. That’s a good one. How about the file overwrite dialog?” (pause) “Oh, they fixed that in the last release.”
Cathy: [same question]
Earl: [similar answer, but with a different feature]
As a hardware builder, it is sheer delight to see bug squashing at such a rapid rate that it is still logged in recent memory. And GNOME Shell is a big step in the right direction. But being geeky people, we never give up, do we?
We are taking Matt Asay’s advice to heart. In The Register he suggested that we: “strip out every last vestige of Linux’s old complexity; anything that might contribute to user confusion or system instability. Every menu item that doesn’t immediately make sense to a child. Dump it.” Personally, this resonates throughout how I live, how I build, and the type of system I need to build for people who are calling our little ZaReason shop.
We need simplicity more than most people realize. For example, a few days ago I was answering the phone in the early morning hours before other staffers arrived at work. I received a call from an elderly gentleman explaining how sick he was of his [proprietary OS] computer crashing. He was nearly in tears. He was tired, confused, and traumatized by the unexplainable and relentless crashes. He needed respite.
What do you say to a kind, soft-hearted man like that? “We are too busy obsessing over features to get you what you need?”
No, we say, and should continue to say, “We are aware that the current state of [proprietary OS] computing is a mess. As a GNOME community we are focused on simplicity. We are here to meet a deep and pervasive need. We are aware of our philanthropic impact and appreciate knowing that we can improve your quality of life. As we build GNOME by the generous efforts of a brilliantly intelligent volunteer community, we will continue to reject complexity and diversions so that we can meet our unified end goal – building a stable, highly usable OS.”
GNOME 3.0, with the GNOME Shell, simplifies the user interface so users can concentrate on the activities they care about. Perhaps GNOME will lead the lead the way both in a respectful-to-the-GPL tablet and in overall simplicity?
We wish the GNOME community could see and hear the people we talk to daily: the parents wanting a computer “that my son can’t load up with every virus he comes across while playing on armorgames”; the university students explaining, “I can’t afford the [proprietary software] upgrades and I heard that [FOSS] can do what I need?”; and especially the elderly people who “simply do not have time for blue screens.” People are asking for simplicity. If anyone in the FOSS world has the foundation to provide this, the GNOME community does.
Cathy Malmrose is CEO of ZaReason, Inc., a computer company aimed at setting up little self-sustaining shops internationally where people can see, touch, and play with sturdy optimized-for-FOSS computers. Her main goal is to “provide people with computers so solid that the person using them experiences a quantifiable improvement in quality of life.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.