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Dale O’Gorman [opinions]

The free computer (can we do it?)

fsmsh.com/1949 [free-software] [free-hardware]

I’m sure like many of you out there you have experienced the same frustrations that I have when trying to install Linux or BSD on a laptop. We need a new approach.

There’s always some little piece of hardware that doesn’t quite work or some feature that is only half implemented. Nowhere is this more obvious than when dealing with a laptop. So many laptops are arcane mysteries in how they are constructed. Sometimes it’s just an awful chore just to get the thing to work right. Now I understand that some of the hardware is “unsupported” on free software; but I don’t think this is good enough.

So many laptops are arcane mysteries...it’s just an awful chore

Obviously, there is a deficiency in the free market if a proper product has not yet been designed. Laptops are not a new innovation; they have been around for a while now and are quite a common sight. I have been running Linux on laptops since the late nineties and I remember how hard it was then. And yes, I admit things have improved in recent years, but I’m still not happy.

And I shall tell you why.

My wife is an avid fan of Apple Macintosh Computers. To tell the truth she has four of them; an old G3 iMac, 2 iBooks, and a G4 Powerbook. Now whether you like Apple or not, one thing is clear: their products just work. When you install MacOS X on any of their products there are no software-hardware issues. When you plug in a wireless card it automatically configures, the same goes for external displays. Unlike XOrg or XFree you don’t have to hack the xf86config or xorg.conf files to get it to work.

I know there are people who will say “But it’s easy for Apple, they control the whole hardware-software stack from top to bottom”, so they can deliver this level of usability.

And those people are right!

A friend of mine just bought himself a new MacBook and after being a Linux user for some years he was astonished by how well it works. Now you might ask what any of this has to do with free software, well come closer and I shall tell you...

The biggest thing holding back free software today is the lack of free hardware!

Maybe we need to look at the problem in a new way

So, what can we do about it. This is what the Apple example has to show us. Apple products work so well because Apple controls the whole shooting match. It’s time for the free software community to do the same. As individuals we are all too small of a concern to bother the manufacturers, but as a community we are far more significant. How hard can it be to set up a foundation or an organization to drive forward the principle of the Open Laptop and the Open Desktop. Apple does not actually manufacture computers anymore, they just design them. Look at any of their products; it says it right on the back.

Why can’t we be both the vendor and the customer

They design the products and then farm the work out to the sub-contracting manufacturers in the Far East and elsewhere. Now Apple controls the specification and they are able to get the component manufacturers to hand over their technical specifications because they buy in bulk. Then they can write their own drivers for the hardware in order to make them work as they see fit.

Can we do this also? Surely we can agree on a baseline specification for a design and then work together to create it. If Apple can do it, and do it at a competitive price, then surely so can we.

So what do we need?

We need to decide what kind of hardware such devices should have, and it’s important to remember that we can start from a clean slate so-to-speak. When Apple were moving over to Intel processors they decided not to use the old fashioned BIOS on most x86 computers in favour of Intel’s relatively new EFI system. Since we are designing these systems for free-software we can adjust the source code as we need to to support the hardware we decide to use. For example we can tune the software to a certain hardware build. We already see this happening in the embedded computers space.

Often people complain when we have to pay the Microsoft Tax on our computers and we never seem to get that money back. Well, there will be no OS Tax on these computers.

Now obviously there is far more to this than meets the eye, lots of organisation will go into such an enterprise and it will not be easy, but I have no doubt that the free software community can rise to the challenge here and produce a free-hardware computer that “just works” so to speak.

I would like to hear everybody’s thoughts on the matter and let’s see if we can get something to happen....

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