What Then

I mentioned the fact that I’d got Linux running on my PDA to Alex the other day, and he said, well, OK, so? Let’s say you do that. What then?

Being a nerd, I was tempted to fall back on the Louis Armstrong Reply™, but this is a temptation worth avoiding, and not just because it’s glib, facile and more than a little condescending. Admittedly, part of being a veteran nerd is that being glib, facile and condescending is just so much muscle memory at this point, a facility that permits me to look reflexively down my nose at people who are better human beings along every observable axis. But, young nerds take note, this isn’t how you want to treat your friends, and it won’t get you laid even a little.

So let me say instead that I think there’s more important going on here than just some elaborate nerdkata.

The question is, so, let’s say that you can get Linux running on some piece of hardware X. Your “payoff” for that is that you can do (presumably) anything that you can do with Linux, which if you’re a gamer runs the gamut from Tetris knockoffs to xterm. Then you… well, then you get the LEDs to blink at you, and you bask in your own dorkdom for a while, and then you try and undo what you did so that you can go back to playing Soul Calibur instead of trying to get your network connection working.

Not an unreasonable position, I think. He mentioned things like the GNU/Linux-on-a-Dreamcast project that seem, at first glance, fall directly into the nifty-but-useless category, because once you’ve done that, well, what else can you do?

Let me tell you a story about a different piece of hardware.

Imagine for me, using the inside of your powerful brains, a computer thinner and smaller than a MacBook, that folds open to either a laptop or a tablet, supports SDRAM, CF and PCMCIA cards that it uses both as live memory and long-term storage, weighs less than three pounds and has a ten hour battery life. No hard drive so no moving parts aside from the hinges, cheaply expandable to as much solid-state storage as modern CF will hold. Zero bootup time: you just push the button and it’s on, in less time than it takes to to get the phone from the desk to your ear.

What does this miraculous piece of tech cost, you ask? Two thousand dollars? Three?

Try and imagine paying sixty bucks for all that.

And if it breaks, hey, life sucks, wear a hat. Pull out the removable media, maybe keep the battery, and get another one.

This isn’t some theoretical device, of course. This computer really exists; it’s called a Vadem Clio, also sold as a Sharp Tripad, and if you’re having a good day you can find one on ebay for around $50 plus shipping. It’s six-year-old tech, of course – VGA screen, no USB, an old processor and so forth, but if all you need is a web browser, an IM client, a mail client and a terminal you’re gold. Load up Firefox, put Skype and a wifi card in, and you’re ready to…

Well, nothing, really. But, longtime reader, you knew this was coming. I wouldn’t be dangling this tender morsel in front of you if I had any intention of actually giving you a taste. New readers, take note: If I am dangling a tender morsel in front of you, I will typically have no intention of giving you a taste. Be warned!

The reason you’re not ready for anything at this point is that this machine is running Windows CE 2.11, as miserable a backwater of an OS as you’re likely to find. And as a result this otherwise serviceable device is basically useless. Nothing built today is going to work on it, it physically cannot be upgraded because the OS is burned into ROM, and because the OS is old and nobody sane gives two shits about it none of that will ever change.

No bug fixes anymore, no security updates, nothing. Want a driver for that USB card, or for Wireless-A? Forget it. It doesn’t matter if you like the hardware or not, that platform is dead. Don’t like that? Choke on it.

That’s why I think that Linux is important, ultimately. Not because I’m part of the dead hardware preservation society, but because open document and binary formats on an open operating system gives you some small hope of keeping your hardware (and, ultimately, your data) from being frogmarched into obsolescence by forces outside your control, and a way to get your information out from inside those machines when your hardware finally lets the smoke out. Not futureproof, strictly, but far more future-resistant. And also, at sixty bucks a pop, very affordable!

So, longwinded am I, and not much for the entertainment value, but there it is. Take at the very least note of the pioneering linguistic innovation that is my invention of the word nerdkata.


  1. Posted June 21, 2006 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    love your writing.

  2. Posted June 21, 2006 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Which is to say, Linux is great for people who like cheap hardware. “Run your DNS server off a 486! Use three year old antique palmtops you can eBay for cheap!”

    I’d rather spend the extra couple hundred dollars and get a nifty-ass new thing that Just Works.

  3. Mike Hoye
    Posted June 21, 2006 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    For a brief window, the Tripad was a nifty-ass new thing that just worked. The point is not merely the “just works” part, but the size of the window.

  4. Jasper Janssen
    Posted June 21, 2006 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what the best way to read eBooks on it is. Current versions of MS and Mobipocket are not supported, at least, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible. OTOH it has the same amount of pixels as my HTC Universal PDAphone..

  5. Mike Hoye
    Posted June 21, 2006 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I love the word “eBook”. It’s a great way to make “text file” sound so very 21st century!

  6. Jasper Janssen
    Posted June 23, 2006 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, but they’re text files *with embedded formatting*! And even with pictures, sometimes!

    Most of the formats appear to be based around HTML-like structures, heavily compressed. The rest of it is mostly reader-based, ebook readers can usually let you set bookmarks, annotations, highlights, and other nifty tricks. The one I use (mobipocket) stores these in a separate data file with a different extension and the same name, but there are formats where these are stored (like id3 information) inside the file.

    Also, eBook formats tend to be based around making DRMed versions of books available. I don’t actually buy any DRMed content, but that’s what they’re for.