Slaves of smartphones

I’ve been recently present in company of my colleagues for a week. My colleagues are all equipped with smartphones. Whenever and wherever we were doing something, it always ended up by half the people staring into their phones. Typically playing with them in some way as children like to do.

Well, we’re an IT company so some interest in computer devices can be expected. And I confess, I waste a lot of time with computers and I use to read newspapers while eating. But I don’t bring my computer nor my newspapers to dinners with my friends or colleagues. I hope I’m still sane enough.

Nevertheless it was a good opportunity to observe what the smartphones are used for in everyday life. They are typically used for: Taking snapshots of people and other objects. Presenting the snapshots to other people, typically in a chaotic way. Taking snapshots of dinner menu and other interesting documents. Taking notes. Sometimes reading the notes. Managing diaries. Finding out current location. Tracking locations of other colleagues. Finding out which way to take. Getting an idea what to visit. Participating in childish competitions (probably arranged for the purpose by their providers). Announcing that pizza is ready in the next room. Finding out what’s the outside temperature (based on data measured at a completely different place several miles away). Measuring angles (for no useful purpose). Buying and playing music and videos. Bothering other people by playing them the music and videos. Making and receiving phone calls (if it works). Finding out how to change washers in a tap. Passing the snapshots, notes, diaries, documents and information about where we are, what we are doing, what we are interested in, what we listen to and what and when we eat to other companies and people. Being instantly notified whenever there is new e-mail or other message, about each posted photo or when the pizza is ready.

It was a scary experience. The amount of information being transferred all the time to someone about each of us, whether a smartphone owner or not, is enormous. The devices are permanently disturbing their physical owners and all the people nearby. And we’re rarely able to talk without their assistance and supervision. They are quite close to the telescreens from 1984.

But what’s worse: Smartphones are our little gods. We adore them, we serve them, we sacrifice our relations, lives and freedom to them (and to those who control them). They may be one of the worst live changers since television conquered our homes.

I don’t reject TV nor smartphones, they may be useful tools which serve us. The problem is we often serve them instead. What’s the likely impact on the society and the lives of each of us?

E-ink reader

In spite my recent rant about such devices I decided to buy an e-ink reader. The primary reason was that it’s uncomfortable for me to read long texts on a monitor. My requirements were: Large screen, stylus and a usable SDK. Considering the requirements there was only one acceptable e-ink reader I could find on the market, PocketBook Pro 903, so I bought that one. What is it like?

E-ink reading fulfills my expectations. The “large” screen is rather small, only about A5 size, but a larger device would be impractical. The resolution is poor (compared to prints) but acceptable. The contrast is rather low but sufficient. That all doesn’t sound encouraging but don’t get mistaken: The reading experience is much better than on an LCD display, my reading problem is gone and I was surprised how much I can read now. It’s just that e-ink readers are at their beginning and there is a lot to improve in future.

Another observation is that replacing the pile of periodicals and printed papers by an electronic storage makes things better and allows their more efficient processing. There is less mess on my table, the papers can be read concurrently without loosing bookmarks, it’s possible to separate a common reading queue from manuals and other permanent documents, etc.

Now to the less positive things. The very first thing you experience is the software license agreement. It says basically something like that the software is crappy, the vendor is proud of its bugs and you’re no way allowed to try fixing them, with the unfortunate exception of some pieces of free software included. Perhaps it’s just worded like other proprietary software agreements, but it’s sad anyway.

Nevertheless the software is not as bad as you might think after reading Internet forums. It’s not very good but it’s usable, especially the current beta firmware version (among others adding multitasking and page browsing improvements). I had to use the reset button within the first 24 hours of owning the device when I connected a USB cable during booting but it has never happened to me again since then (I no longer connect a USB cable during booting). Applications don’t crash much often and the crashes seem to be related to certain actions rather than being random. Some things work well while other don’t. Once you discover what you can do safely with the device and how to utilize it effectively, it’s rather stable and it’s possible to read various kinds of stuff. Not perfect, but usable.

I can’t blame solely the vendor for the quality of the software. They could do more but they are mostly dependent on what is already available and it seems e-reading software is generally immature. It’s good that the device is not completely closed. For instance the provided RSS reader is unusable for me and other RSS fetching means don’t satisfy me much either. So I decided to create my own custom RSS fetching script using standard Unix (BusyBox) tools on PocketBook and it works well.

The included dictionaries are not very small nor very big and don’t include sufficient grammar information about the words. They are useful to occasionally translate words during reading and they may be useful when travelling. Not much more. For some strange reason there is no German-English dictionary included. I’d like to have an easy option to use free dictionaries.

The speech voices I tried are of very good quality. Text to speech processing handles pronunciation well but its interpretation of punctuation and other special text is poor. The speech synthesis is apparently too demanding for the device, it makes long pauses between sentences.

The web browser is not very comfortable but it’s usable, even for occasional webmail reading. It would be even more usable if webmasters weren’t idiots. There are actually two web browsers, two PDF readers and two e-book readers installed, so you can try the other application when something doesn’t work well (very useful!).

Wi-Fi works without problems. It’s possible to use Bluetooth headphones, at least with the beta firmware. It’s just confusing the corresponding menu entry is missing from Czech menu, I had to switch to another language to access it.

It’s fine and useful that the device can be mostly handled without using stylus (with the obvious exceptions such as drawing). The touch screen is not very responsive. It’s probably not a problem of my particular device as it can be observed in some review videos on YouTube as well. It looks more like a software rather than hardware problem to me.

Finally, I don’t understand what’s the purpose of the bookland.net site. It’s just a heap of overpriced books. But nothing forces me to use it so I don’t care.

Smart phones one year later

When I was looking for a new mobile phone and looked at smart phones more than a year ago, I’ve found there has been no working smart phone equipped with a truly free operating system providing rich set of applications and nice development environment. It seems there happened at least two important changes in this area during last year.

I’ve found Neo FreeRunner is still not dead. And looking at their latest news I can see a great change: Debian is taken seriously now as the primary operating system for the device. This means the phone can be equipped with a reliable operating system, I should be able to install my favorite applications on the phone, there should be a working development environment and it would make sense to contribute to the development of the phone software environment (nothing of that applied to the former OpenMoko operating system). For this fact, if I was buying a smart phone today, I would buy the FreeRunner without much doubts. So after fixing the wrong operating system strategy now the question is what will happen with the hardware. We’ll see.

As for big vendors, Nokia is still interested in providing operating systems based on GNU/Linux platform in their phones and possibly future tablets. They’ve abandoned Maemo which is no pity. When I looked at Maemo web pages last time, I’ve got the impression that Maemo is a semi-free operating system providing only a very limited set of supported packages and not being worth to contribute to. Why simply not to use Android under such conditions? The only real advantage of Maemo might be that with a significant effort and patience one could in theory port his favorite applications and all their dependencies to the system, there is no such option with Android. It’s better to avoid such systems.

Now Nokia joined its efforts with Intel on development of MeeGo operating system. Will MeeGo fix the problems of Maemo? They promise MeeGo itself will be completely open source, this is good. But will it provide all the important applications such as Emacs, KStars, Scid with Stockfish, etc.? I doubt, it’s no easy thing to develop a complete operating system distribution and it’s even harder under corporation umbrella where it’s likely the distribution will be rather closed and driven mostly by marketing requirements. And if all the marketing wants is to provide just another Android and iPhone competitor then the question is again: Why not to use Android straight out? If Nokia would like to be different (would it?) then they could work on making Debian easily installable and runnable on their phones and tablets. Then those devices could be real killers in a certain market segment. We’ll see.

Lessons from Sharp Zaurus

There are areas where free software community fails. Not for technical reasons or lack of resources, but because of management and strategic planning incompetence.

Once I got an idea to get a Linux handheld. There were two models available at the time: Sharp Zaurus and Nokia tablet. The Nokia tablet didn’t have any keyboard so I choose Sharp Zaurus, despite its worse operating system.

The preinstalled operating system on the Zaurus was some old version of Qtopia combined with proprietary applications. It had some nice features but many problems, such as missing Czech environment, limited set of applications, no X support and obsolete development environment. Some improved versions of the system were available but the basic limitations were still present.

After some time I replaced the original system with pdaXrom, a free Linux based operating system for PDAs. It offered X Window System and more modern development environment so it was possible to port common applications to it. Nevertheless pdaXrom was no way complete and its development has deceased during the time.

Developers of several free Linux PDA operating systems decided to join their efforts in the Ångström project. So I replaced abandoned pdaXrom with Ångström. But Ångström offered only very limited set of applications and I’ve never managed to get its development environment working.

There were only two options remaining: Either to put my Zaurus to a recycling center or to install Debian on it. Fortunately I could find a Debian installation for Zaurus so after several years I got chance to run a full featured operating system on the device. Finally I could install Emacs and other basic applications easily. But there were some minor problems and I’ve later upgraded to an up-to-date Debian version. By replacing the old preconfigured kdrive X server with standard xfbdev X server I’ve lost touch screen capability. So my Zaurus remains mostly unusable until I have time to look at the problem and can get it fixed.

I really don’t understand why free software developers waste their limited resources by developing new operating systems that are unmaintained, very incomplete, missing good development environment and generally not perfectly working, when a good and complete operating system such as Debian already exists. All what was need was to customize Debian a bit for use on the particular kind of device. I could see the same mistake was repeated by Neo Freerunner developers. Instead of focusing only on important things like handling calls and SMS, they tried to maintain a complete operating system. In the final result Neo Freerunner didn’t provide reliable calls nor a complete operating system.

Community developers have painfully failed in finding a feasible way of making a good free operating system for PDAs. Nokia managers made a better decision by deciding to base Maemo on Debian, thus avoiding a lot of useless work. I don’t know whether Maemo allows easy porting Debian applications to it using a completely free SDK. If it does then it may be (the only) promising platform unless Nokia decides to stop its further development. Other platforms are either not well maintained, or are not actually free (Android with its proprietary SDK), or are based on a platform that can’t run common free applications (Android, perhaps Symbian as well).

Smart phones

My old mobile phone becomes a bit unreliable, so I look for a new one. Perhaps a smart phone would be useful, but I’m not interested in proprietary and virus prone OSes without available source code and lacking good development tools and community support. Given these constraints there are at most two options: Google Android and Openmoko (Neo FreeRunner).

If I understand it right, Google Android is actually not an option. It’s built on top of a Java platform and can be programmed only by using a proprietary SDK. So it’s not completely free, I’m forced to work in Java and I can’t port my favorite applications to it. No, thank you.

Openmoko is an interesting free software platform, but there are problems. Neo FreeRunner phone is relatively expensive while lacking some basic features commonly available in cheap phones (EDGE, camera). But the real problem is that it doesn’t seem to provide robust telephony services instantly. I’m looking for a device which I can use exclusively, not for a supplementary and rather expensive toy. If the basic phone functionality worked without any problems then I might participate on development of other features. Hopefully Openmoko (or other nice platform) reaches that state before my next mobile phone will die.

So my next mobile phone will be a simple phone, smart phones haven’t grown up enough yet to satisfy my needs.

Installing pdaXrom

Sharp Zaurus SL-C1000 is shipped with its own Linux operating system based on Qtopia. The system is not bad, it is stable and although it requires some updates to become really usable, it provides nice PDA environment covering many areas of use. But it suffers of some problems: it’s incompatible (as it uses Qtopia instead of X), contains a lot of proprietary applications and the available development environment is obsolete. Simply said it’s difficult and annoying to port applications to the system.

So I decided to replace the Sharp operating system with pdaXrom, which is a free X-based operating system for (Sharp) PDAs. They say the operating system replacement should be safe as the Zaurus low-level system service menu is placed in ROM and can’t be erased. First I tried to install the latest pdaXrom release, i.e. 1.1.0r121. This was a mistake as the device ended up seemingly completely dead after reboot. It took me a lot of googling and experiments to get it recovered and to install pdaXrom 1.1.0beta3 which seems to work fine so far.

The first advice: Don’t install the latest 1.1.0r121 release, install 1.1.0beta3 instead (until some new stable version is released) which has reputation of being relatively stable.

The second advice: If you end up with a “dead” C1000, you can recover it as described on the TRIsoft site. But there is an important missing detail there: You need to press Fn+D+M to start the service menu, not only D+M.