My company recently bought a Dell Inspiron Mini9 to try out in the field. It’s what’s referred to in the industry as a “netbook” because it’s so small. The idea is to have a device that’s a cross between a full laptop, and a smart phone with constant internet access. It’s really a handy idea . . . for blogging from a coffee shop. If you need more, however, you’ll be disappointed.
Well, we found that our field agents didn’t like it because the keyboard is too small for them to type for long periods of time. It was retired to my shelf of misfit toys in my office. Dell offers it in either Windows XP (which is just plain stupid) or a specialized flavor of Linux called Ubuntu. So I decided to image it with the Ubuntu installation, and I was pleasantly surprised! Everything worked well right off the bat! Even the onboard mobile broadband card! There’s also a neat feature called Network Manager who’s sole purpose is to keep you online:
- It notices you are at work/home and keeps you logged into your wifi.
- You plug in an ethernet cable instead, and it automatically switches itself from wifi to wired mode.
- You leave home, and it will automatically fire up your mobile broadband and VPN to reconnect you to your work/home network.
Having that kind of automation was really quite nice, but the netbook form factor was annoying the snot out of me. I looked back on my shelf of misfits and found an unwanted Lenovo X61 Tablet. A tablet is a PC that has a touchscreen and can fold flat. The idea is that you can enter inputs directly onto the screen and the PC will immediately act on them. Usually this is through use of an annoying stylus that never acts like you want it to. The Lenovo, however, allows you to use your finger, which is awesome.
So, I install this same Ubuntu distro (a distribution of Linux is usually nicknamed a “distro”) and nearly everything works. Things are fast, battery life is great, the Network Manager is awesome. The touchscreen . . . is unresponsive.
Ok, I’m used to doing things the hard way. Let’s hit the forums. Turns out this is a known issue . . . with all versions of Linux. So, after some help from forum verterans and about 4 days worth of programming and testing, I have a working touchscreen! Five more days worth of programming and I can even rotate the screen 90 degrees! Throw in another 4 days and I have a fingerprint reader that almost works for half of its intended purposes!
If you haven’t gathered by now, Linux needs a bit of work to get it working like you want. The whole idea behind open source is that everyone is free to help each other program whatever they want. The harsh reality is that the people who really know what they’re doing don’t WANT to spend all day helping hundreds of other people get their systems working, too!
None of this was a deal breaker for me . . . until today.
The newest update for the Linux kernel allows users to have a single file up to 4 TB in size . . . but it does not have a working browser. Google Chrome (my favorite) won’t work in Linux, neither will it’s open source cousin Chromium. Safari doesn’t either. Firefox does, but the last bunch of updates rendered it inoperable. Now it won’t open at all, and is unable to update itself with the latest fix. Konquerer (Linux’s KDE version of a browser) won’t install at all because some doofus who wasn’t paying attention because this isn’t actually his job missed a single line of code and so it locks up my system.
So, here’s the current status of my dream tablet:
- VPN: Doesn’t work at all in Ubuntu 9.10. Kinda works in 9.04, but only in 32-bit. 64-bit (what I have) can’t remember what it’s doing half way into the tunnel connection. Not kidding there.
- RAM: Even though Windows 32-bit can see RAM up to 3.7GB, and only needs 64-bit for computers above 4GB, Linux evidently can’t even see that. Ubuntu x32 saw my 3.7GB as 1.8GB . . . weird.
- Flash: The package manager has 4 different Adobe flash installations, and none of them work.
- Java: See above.
- Shell Commands: All I’ve ever heard about Unix and Linux is that they are operating systems that LOVE networks. You can do anything from a command line. What they fail to tell you is that you can only do things to your LOCAL COMPUTER with the command line. We had that too; it was called DOS and it sucked. If you are on Windows and want to do things on a Linux machine, you can use programs to SSH to Linux and run whatever commands you want. If you have a Linux machine and want to do the same to Windows? You’re out of luck.
- Task Manager: There isn’t one. You’re screwed if any one program freezes, cause the whole stinking mess is frozen with you.
- Internet: It connects wicked fast, allowing you to stare at your broken web browser within seconds! A computer without the internet in these times is about as useful as a doorstop.
See, there’s a reason why Linux hasn’t really caught on in the mainstream: it doesn’t have 50,000 employees based in Washington working on making it usable!!