foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

Asus EEE PC – is it really good news for FOSS and GNU/Linux?

, posted: 13-Mar-2008 06:51

The Asus EEE PC is a truly marvellous little machine. I had heard a lot of good things about it. But usually, I'm not all that interested in those fancy ultra mobile devices everyone is supposed to buy these days. The EEE PC, however, is running GNU/Linux, which piqued my interest. A week or two ago at a local Dick Smith, I finally laid eyes on one of them in person. Playing around with that now famous tabbed interface, I noticed that it definitely doesn't look like a normal GNU/Linux desktop at first or even second glance. It sure was easy to use, though. Huge icons you could easily navigate to, even with a tiny touch-pad. The webcam application just worked, bootup, suspend and wakeup was lightning fast. So small, so light. Great!

It just works!

Since then, our family has adopted one of those little guys. Once we got it home, it literally only took a minute or two from unpacking to browsing the Internet, and that time was mostly spent just specifying the user, password, timezone and such. Our wireless home network with WAP encryption? Found and configured with just two clicks. Our USB printer, which is shared on the network via our other computer (running Ubuntu)? Instantly detected and set as default. Video calls via Skype? Worked instantly, after upgrading the pre-installed Skype to the latest version (easily done with the built-in upgrade app). USB devices, such as memory sticks? No problem at all. Web browsing, including flash, movie clips at news sites and other such things? Worked right out of the box.

The user experience can be summed up in three words: It just works. The tabbed interface is incredibly simple to use and will give easy access to all the activities that owners of these devices want to do: Browse the Internet, e-mail, chat, video calls. And since it comes with the full OpenOffice suite as well, you can do actual work on it too.

Great for GNU/Linux? Wait... where IS GNU/Linux?

Obviously, we can see that once GNU/Linux gets the same pre-installation love from an OEM as Windows normally gets, it works just as flawlessly on their hardware and is just as easy to use. So, isn't that a great success for GNU/Linux? Isn't GNU/Linux finally going mainstream, considering how well the EEE PC sells?

Actually, I'm not so sure about that.

When people buy the EEE PC, they don't choose GNU/Linux. That's just what it comes with. Just like most people don't care about the OS on their mobile phone. Or the OS in the on-board computer of their modern car. Normally, people who are used to Windows and its applications will continue to choose Windows as OS for their PCs. Because that's what they are used to ... for their PCs. But as this very insightful article in the Guardian points out, they are willing to look past that for the EEE PC. Why? The article summarised it superbly:

Because the form factor is so different, people don't seem to make direct comparisons with the desktop PC, and therefore don't expect the user experience to be identical.

Exactly. The tabbed interface with those big, colourful icons in them looks different from anything we are used to on the desktop. Any complexities are hidden. When you look closely, you notice that the dialogs of the underlying desktop are quite KDE-like (it really uses the IceWM window manager), but you won't see any of GNU/Linux's (or KDE's or any other desktop's) many (in-)famous configuration options. There is no icon to open the terminal. That's done via some magic keyboard shortcut, if you really want to expose yourself to it.

Choosing vs. using

Sure, with the success of the EEE PC, more people will be exposed to some of the typical open source applications: Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice. For many, this will be their first exposure to these apps, and I guess this increased exposure is a good thing.

But Bruce Byfield reminds us that supporters of free software (in the Richard Stallman sense of 'free') shouldn't drive GNU/Linux and free software for the sake of market share alone. Instead, we should advocate free software by educating people about the value of free vs. proprietary. We should get people to consciously choose GNU/Linux, not only because it is technically good, fulfils their computing needs, and will run on consistently cheaper hardware than Windows (as pointed out in the Guardian article as well). We should stress that by choosing GNU/Linux (or any other free OS for that matter) the user retains his/her freedoms. The freedom and flexibility to configure, modify and change whatever they wish about their system. The freedom to do with their computer what they want, rather than what some corporation somewhere deemed as beneficial for its own bottom line. The freedom to share ideas and solutions freely, and to benefit from similarly shared solutions by others. Freedom and control over their own data.

Once a person consciously chooses free software for those reasons, they are very unlikely to ever go back. If, however, they just use free software because that's what this neat new device they bought came with... well then free software certainly has gotten another user, but it's going to be just that: Only a user. Not someone who will go ahead and replace all their proprietary desktop software with free software now. They won't go and recommend free software to their friends and employer, and they won't be able to explain or even know what free software is all about. They won't care about it. Instead, they are very likely to just continue to use Windows or Apple as their desktop without even thinking twice about it.

Market share is not all we want

So, through the cleverly simple and intuitive interface, Asus managed to make the EEE PC into a huge success. It sets a precedence and constitutes a signal to other device manufacturers that the consumer is happily willing to accept GNU/Linux as an OS for ultra portables – as long as they don't have to actually deal with it, as long as the wonderful freedom and flexibility of GNU/Linux is largely hidden.

As mentioned, there is definitely a bright side as well: More people will get used to free software. The more capable these devices become, the more serious work people can do on them, and the more they will begin to notice that it's actually not IE, or Outlook or MS Office they are using there to good effect, but some other software instead, which also happens to be free. Eventually this realisation will set in, and that's probably the best we can hope for.

Through the EEE PC and other devices like it, the GNU/Linux (and free software) market share is going to increase. For the time being, though, their mind-share will only change very little.

Other related posts:
Munich already saved millions by switching to Linux
Smooth sailing with the Karmic Koala
A Linux distro for Cuba

Comment by Jim Kissel, on 13-Mar-2008 19:21

The underlying desktop is actually IceWM not KDE

Comment by A. Bird, on 13-Mar-2008 23:11

If you're after "free" software as in Richard Stallman's 1600 word definition of "free" (that restricts all sorts of freedoms and doesn't actually mean "free" in the way normal people expect), then you should be vehemently opposed to the EEE PC.

It certainly doesn't meet his definition of free, and it's probably "Tivoisation" which Stallman attacked with GPL3 in addition to Microsoft and Novell.

He's such a negative guy I don't get why he always seems to be attacking people instead of letting them be free.

Author's note by foobar, on 14-Mar-2008 10:09

@Jim Kissel: Wouldn't you know it. You are right! The dialogs, such as file open dialog box, looked so very KDE-like, though. Anyway, I have modified the article accordingly.  Thanks for pointing that out.

Author's note by foobar, on 14-Mar-2008 10:21

@A. Bird: I know that the EEE PC uses Xandros, which is largely frowned upon due to its collaboration with Microsoft. And it probably uses a bunch of proprietary software (drivers? Skype?) as well. Yes, Richard Stallman would not like that.

Nevertheless, it uses a lot of free software too, there is no doubt about that. OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, etc. are all free in the Richard Stallman sense of the word. The user will be exposed to this free software, which was one of the points of my posting.

The device itself, to get back to your point, is not necessarily a prime example of a completely free system. And because of its interface, which allows people to use it without having to even acknowledge the presence of free software or even know about it, I think that Richard Stallman probably wouldn't like it: It doesn't do anything to educate users about the benefits of free software. Maybe a missed chance?

I do have to defend him a bit, though: While his views are certainly extreme and uncompromising, they are consistent. The GPL is a license, which spells out terms of use. Thus, by definition it restricts some things. I do think, though, that these restrictions are for the purpose of ensuring the persistence of other, important freedoms.

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New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
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