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Netbooks Revisited

There has been a lot of buzz around the recent post by Brandon LeBlanc, Microsoft employee, who has claimed that Microsoft has dominated the Netbook market. Thankfully, Chris Kenyon of Canonical Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols of ComputerWorld and others have helped to expose the FUD here.

Since this has become such a hot topic, I thought I’d add my two cents regarding Netbooks in general. They are affordable, low-powered and highly-portable computers that are good for simple tasks such as writing e-mail and documents and surfing the Web. I’ve done a substantial amount of reading on Netbooks over the past year, and while many folks have high hopes for their Netbooks, most of the product reviews state very plainly that these are not good replacements for desktops and laptops. I’ve also played with the various models available in stores and I cannot imagine attempting to design and write even a moderately-sized application using such small keys and screens. (Of course, I’m a bit spoiled with two 19″ LCDs in front of me at work all day long, each providing 1280 X 1024 of on-screen real estate.)

Based on the assumption that simple tasks are indeed the focus, I find myself questioning why the default interface on, say, the Eee PC is found to be so insufficient by so many people. To me, the simple interface is part of the netbook’s charm. I guess it boils down to personal preference and what you want the machine to do for you. Maybe most people don’t do simple things anymore. Maybe the computer-literati have finally succumbed to unhealthy levels of multitasking, possibly resulting in cases of chronic distraction. Maybe, in the future, the finger movements associated with the Control-Tab motion will become an innate reflex.


ASUS On Linux & Warranties

Since the announcement that Best Buy started carrying the ASUS Eee PC 900A in their stores at a new US$299 price point (down to US$280 just yesterday), I’ve been keeping my eye on the market’s reaction. Whilst researching, I ran across several interesting posts that tie into the “Linux will void my warranty” FUD pattern. Apparently, there have been two concerns over the warranty for this line of netbooks.

The first has to do with a sticker that appeared on the bottom of some units indicating that opening the unit will void the warranty. This is unthinkable – even a simple RAM upgrade, which many folks do immediately upon purchasing an Eee PC, requires opening the access panel on the bottom. Indeed, ASUS agrees and has publically clarified that this is not the case.

The second concern, and one that I find more interesting with respect to the FUD pattern, is that ASUS will only support the default Xandros flavor of Linux. Reportedly, “Asus is not responsible for software misconfiguration, such as troubleshooting an alternative operating system.” It does not state that running another Linux flavor or MS Windows will void the warranty (in fact, the posting makes that explicitly clear), but it does show that ASUS is limited in the service they can provide if the OS is replaced. This is not much different than what HP’s warranty conditions state.


Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 8

Linux FUD Pattern #8: Linux will void your warranty

Will the use of Linux void the manufacturer’s warranty of your computer hardware? This is one fear that prevents some people from making the leap to Linux, which is why it is on my Top 10 List of Linux FUD Patterns. The short answer is, it depends; however, there are steps that you can take to increase your probability of receiving service under a warranty.

What Is A Warranty?

A warranty is a seller’s obligation to provide a remedy when a product fails to meet the conditions of the warranty. The conditions and the remedies are specific to the warranty for a product, though some warranties are legally implied and need not be explicitly expressed. The Federal Trade Commisison provides a very informative page describing warranties.

Conditions under which a buyer may exercise the right to receive a remedy usually concern attributes of product quality. Express warranties are an incentive to the buyer, because it shows that the seller is willing to stand behind its products and protect the consumer from unintended defects that arise during manufacturing or during normal use. The definition of normal (or “intended”) use may be specified in the conditions.

In the United States, Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code governs warranties, both express and implied. Sellers are legally limited in the extent to which they can disclaim warranties. Specific statutes are established at the state level. Moreover, the Magnuson-Moss Act of 1975 was enacted to make warranties more readily understood, but its application is limited to consumer (read: household) products.

Why Not Honor Warranty Claims?

Why would a company not want to honor a claim made against its product warranty? In a word: cost.

Warranties are considered to be contingent liabilities for financial accounting purposes. At the time of sale, a reasonable estimate of warranty costs can often be made. This also means that until the costs either are realized (e.g. warranty work is performed) or expire (e.g. at the end of the warranty period), the obligation to replace or repair the product in question impacts the financial health of the seller or manufacturer. Depending on the product, such obligations can be significant. Financially, expiration is much better than realization because it does not impact cash.

Moreover, the cost of troubleshooting and repairing a system with a nonstandard OS installed is higher than that for a standard configuration because time must be spent either learning to work within the unfamiliar operating environment or time is spent working around that environment. It’s also much easier to determine when a problem is not a result of manufacturing or normal use when the technician is working within a known environment as it has been (pre)installed by the seller. If you replaced the software used by your automobile’s internal computer with a variety of your own, do you really think a dealership or even an independent mechanic is prepared (much less willing) to assist?

What’s worse, if a component of a product that provides some sort of control over the use of the product for the purpose of maintaining or extending its useful life, then the replacement or modification of that component may cause hard to the product as a whole. This is obviously not a manufacturing defect and is unlikely to be considered “normal use”. The extent to which an OS fits this description depends on what functions the OS provides (e.g. teperature control).

Read Your Warranty!

Ultimately, the answer to the question lies in the language of the warranty itself. A statement of warranty is a legal document and the one shipped with your new PC was probably written with or by a lawyer. The specific conditions and remedies are contained therein. READ YOUR WARRANTY! This will be the primary source of coverage information should you decide to take a dishonored claim to the courts. If it is that important to you, read the warranty before you buy the computer and only buy a computer with a favorable warranty.

Rest assured, the company will probably steer clear of violations of implied warranty, which means that they will probably not refuse to replace items that pose grave safety hazards, such as exploding laptop batteries. Dealing with your non-standard OS is much less costly than a court settlement with your home insurance company or your estate. A motherboard or power supply that stops working altogether is not a grave safety issue and claims regarding these issues are subject to more scrutiny.

HP Case Study

An exegesis of each and every warranty provided by every PC manufacturer over time is far beyond what I can do here. But, since a Web search for ‘Linux’ and ‘warranty’ readily retrieves stories about Hewlett-Packard, and since my family has two HP laptops in the household currently, I decided to do a little research on their warranty specifically. Here’s what I found, followed by an account of my own experience with HP support.

The HP warranty is published online, so rather than quote what is on my warranty card, I thought it might be more useful for the reader to have access to the warranty disclosed publically. In the first paragraph of the “Limited Warranty” section, the application of the warranty conditions is expressly limited to hardware products and specifically excludes software and non-branded peripherals. The section continues to explain the HP guarantee, the customer’s entitlement to receive hardware warranty service, and the conditions for repair or replacement.

The “Software Limited Warranty” section near the bottom of the warranty page explains that HP’s obligations are limited to defects in the removable media (i.e. floppies, CDs, DVDs, etc.) shipped with the product, and then, for only a period of 90 days. Of course, the chance that an average PC customer is actually going to use the recovery or installation CDs for a preloaded PC within 90 days, especially for the express purpose of testing the media for defects, is pretty remote – good thing the expectations weren’t set too high for software.

That section also explicitly disclaims support for “freeware operating systems and applications.” Yes, Linux is Open Source and not freeware, but then, the actual verbiage of the paragraph refers to “software provided under public license by third parties” and that would include an aftermarket installation of any GPL software.

So far, so good. Hardware is supported and software isn’t. Uh oh…

There is a possible out for HP in the “Customer Responsibilities” section. For “best possible support”, the customer must be able to “run HP diagnostics and utilities” and even allow HP to monitor using “system and network diagnosis and maintenance tools”. No doubt, these are compiled for Windows only. “I’m sorry, we cannot fix a problem that we cannot diagnose. Good bye.”

This doesn’t mean that HP will not support you, but it does provide them with a logical and reasonable excuse not to do so. Indeed, HP reportedly clarified in early 2007 that the installation of Linux does not affect the warranty of the hardware so long as the software is not the cause of the problem being fixed.

Here is a case in point. In recent months, HP issued a recall of specific models of the Pavilion laptop due to a BIOS problem. As I understand it, the problem had something to do with the computer’s ability to regulate temperature, so units would overheat. Battery problems and other component failures were extreme symptoms. My wife’s laptop was one of the models listed, so I called tech support to schedule a repair. During the course of the conversation, I told the representative that I would remove the hard drive prior to shipment, primarily because it contained sensitive data (which was true). I also mentioned that Linux was installed and that the hard drive would be of little value in the repair process. The rep said that removal of the hard drive was acceptable. The unit was fixed and returned without incident.

How To Protect Your Warranty

Based on my experience and research, here are a few things that you can do to help ensure warranty service:

Troubleshoot the problem. If you are tech-savvy enough to run Linux, you probably know a thing or two about computers. Troubleshooting problems is a science, not an art, and the more you isolate the problem to a specific component, the more leverage you have with the warranty organization.

Buy a second hard drive. The only evidence of a Linux install is on the hard disk (unless you’ve replaced the Windows case badge with a Linux one, of course). When you buy a new PC, set up the preinstalled system, register it, remove the hard drive and store it in a safe place should you need to run vendor-supplied diagnostics. Buy and install a second hard drive for your Linux install and go to town!

Retain possession of your hard drive. Do what I did and tell them that you will be sending the unit in for repair sans hard drive. Data security is a big deal, even more so if the data in question is your employer’s data! Besides, the worthy repair facilities have their own diagnosis disks to use in lieu of a customer’s drive. You need not mention Linux at all. Of course, you cannot expect them the repair or replace a hard drive if you do not furnish the broken one.

Play it safe. Do not use software or perform other system tweeks that have the potential to harm hardware if you want the warranty honored. It is very unlikely that a standard Linux distro will cause such harm, but Linux does provide much more software access to hardware components than do other consumer operating systems. You may be surprised how easy it can be for the experts to determine how a component burnt out and the probable reasons as to why.


<< Go To Part 7 Part 9 Coming Soon >>


This article contains information on warranties, but does not contain legal advice. Opinions expressed herein belong solely to the author. If you have a warranty issue that may necessitate legal action, please contact a lawyer.

FUD Alert! Cheap Laptop Prices Misleading

An article from the Business Standard entitled “Cheap laptop price tags can mislead users” (by D’Monte & Shinde, Mumbai, India, January 24, 2008) warns consumers about the pitfalls of buying a cheap laptop in today’s market. It doesn’t focus on suboptimal hardware offerings, or limited expandability, or the defect-rate of cheap components, or even the impact of pre-loaded bloatware on the unit’s usefulness. I expected any or all of these when I first clicked on the link. Instead, it focuses on the OS cost component and how Linux is being used to bait customers on price point.

The authors (almost) immediately write Linux off in the fourth paragraph, citing the general lack of support for the OS (FUD Pattern #2), commercial offerings of Red Hat and Novell excepted. Once again, the business-centric concept of “good support” – evidenced by a toll-free phone number and a paid staff – is reinforced in the mind of the reader. This simple statement effectively obscures the wealth of online Linux support information and gives the OS a second-rate appearance at best. It also sets the stage for the remainder of the article, a discussion of the popularity of Microsoft’s products in India and the unfortunate piracy rate. The only disparaging remark about Linux after the fourth paragraph is that the affordable Vista Starter Edition has successfully displaced Linux on most new cheap-laptop orders.

On a side note, essentially all of the initial comments support Linux, several even calling FUD. I was impressed with these fourteen opinions…so strong and impassioned, so consistent in thought… so written by only five distinct users. I get the impression that the comment input-box was too small and that two comments had to be spread over eleven submissions. Still, many good points were made in these rants.


Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 3

Linux FUD Pattern #2: Linux is not “officially” supported

When you hear the phrase “official support,” what comes to mind? Informative user manuals? A well-staffed call center? But what makes it “official”? This is the second item on my Top 10 List of Linux FUD patterns: the lack of “official” Linux support. The goal of FUD based on this notion is a mixture of fear and uncertainty, to make you believe that using Linux means having no place to turn when a problem occurs.

Generally speaking, “official support” for a product is provided by the entity that owns the intellectual property for the product and/or has the right to produce and distribute it. Products are typically sold or leased, both of which are types of business transactions; this implies that the entity in question is operating as a business. A third-party provider paid to support a product may be licensed by, or otherwise affiliated with the original vendor, but only the vendor’s fixes and upgrades are “officially” supported. “Official” support connotes a certain level of authority or expertise, but also implies consequences, usually legal or fiscal, for a failure to meet service expectations. This is the model used by businesses today.

Linux, however, is not a business-supported product (per se). Linux is not “owned” by a particular entity, nor does one particular entity retain the exclusive right to update and distribute it. It is licensed under the GNU Public License (GPL), which permits any software recipient to modify and distribute the software or derivatives thereof as long as the conditions of the GPL are not violated. This is coupled with the open source philosophy, but they aren’t exactly the same thing – an open source application may be licensed under something other than the GPL.

So then, who does “officially” support Linux? The answer is that Linux has always been a grassroots movement. Though it was originally created by one man, Linux is “officially” maintained by a community made up of individuals, groups, and yes, businesses. Different groups within the community support different parts of the system. These groups are commonly known as “maintainers” and usually include original authors or those to whom the torch of authority has been successively passed. For example, assuming the Wikipedia article on the Linux Kernel is not out-of-date, Mr. Torvalds still supervises changes to the core of Linux and has designated the maintenance of older releases to other individual maintainers. The parts maintained are typically called “projects”. Various entities, such as Ubuntu and Red Hat, bundle various system parts together as a unit and ensure that their respective distributions operate as expected, that is to say, that they operate well.

While maintainer and/or community support for a Linux distribution or a particular project may be “official”, technical assistance may not be readily available, on demand, free of charge, or for that matter, available at all. Most maintainers are polite and willing to help, but please remember that much of Linux has been contributed by developers and that support offered pro bono publico doesn’t help feed the family or pay the mortgage. This is where the rest of the community helps out, in the form of online support forums.

Paid support is available as part of the commercial offerings made by Red Hat, Novell, Linspire and others. Additionally, some of these companies offer professional services, such as consulting and training, though these services are typically meant for consumption by businesses, not home users. Any company offering fee-based technical support for Linux is free to set their own price, whatever the market will bear.

In an increasingly tech-savvy world, I think the difference between commercial and community-based support is rapidly decreasing. Consider the available courses of action that may be taken when a problem does occur with a commercial OS. Almost always, the first step is to search the Internet for a root cause, if not a full-blown resolution. This is often done as a cost-saving measure (easy fix) or so that the user/administrator can better explain the problem to tech support when a call is eventually made. Moreover, help may be actively sought in a multitude of discussion groups, mailing lists, blogs, chat rooms and other forums dedicated to supporting various operating systems. Another option is to consult with a friend or relative that knows about these sorts of things. Of course, the “official” vendor or (gasp) a consultant can be called upon, usually for a fee of course. At the discretion of the user/administrator, the problem may be eliminated by brute force: reinstalling the OS. (Actually, this last option isn’t all bad as long as no data were lost – it provides an opportunity to “clean house” and possibly upgrade to a newer release or move to a different distribution.) The order of preference for these alternatives depends on the facts and circumstances surrounding the problem, but they almost always rank from the least- to the most-expensive in terms of time, effort and cash outlay.

Hardware support (or lack thereof) often appears as diversionary FUD regarding “official” support. Hardware must be able to communicate with the computer at several levels, starting with the physical. For example, a USB device can be attached to any machine with the appropriate port, but to use the device the OS must know how to communicate with both the USB itself and the device on the other side. Obviously, this issue quickly boils down to device drivers and brings us back to a discussion of “official” software support.

Rest assured, common devices such as keyboards, mice and thumb drives, almost always work using standard Linux drivers. In other words, they don’t support Linux; rather, Linux supports them. Newer device classes for which no “official” Linux drivers are provided often suffer a period of incompatibility or reduced usefulness. For example, Wi-fi network interface cards are now going through the same sort of transition that consumer-class Ethernet cards did about six or eight years ago. Many times, this is because drivers have to be derived from messages sent to and from the devices, often requiring many hours of experimentation. A general rule of thumb: hardware compatibility problems are more common as the hardware becomes more exotic. For example, I experienced new levels of frustration with the big-name vendor of a certain USB-ready programmable television remote control for which future Linux support was promised and never delivered. But, the fact is, hardware vendors have the right to choose to support Linux or not, a decision based on supply and demand. The need to operate specific hardware may dictate which OS is used.

The best advice I can give is to ignore the FUD and adopt a pragmatic approach to defining your support needs. Your needs are specific to you. Compile a scorecard and do some research. Questions that should be answered include the following. What is your level of expertise with computers? Have you needed professional OS support in the past? Do you expect to need it in the future? Are you comfortable doing your own support work? Based on community-supplied information? Is your hardware “officially” supported or listed in one of the various compatibility lists? Do you use exotic hardware components? Have you tried running a Linux Live CD, especially Knoppix? When buying a new PC or laptop, have other users posted their experiences with the same model? Research never hurts, but just be on the lookout for more FUD!


<< Go To Part 2 Read Part 4 >>

Adventures in a New Ubuntu 6.10 Clean Install – Day 2, Part 1

Day 2, Part 1

Configuring Display Settings and Resolution

The first thing I had to do once I got to my Ubuntu desktop (after login, of course!) was to reconfigure my display settings. The maximum resolution allowed was 1024×768 with a refresh rate of 60Hz. My default is usually 1280×1024 @ 75Hz. So my screen was too small and flickered at such a low refresh rate.

To fix this screen resolution issue, I did a sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg.

I also had to Google my monitor’s specs so I can correctly tell the xserver what my horizontal and vertical frequency ranges are. When I ran that command in terminal and followed the steps, I noticed that Ubuntu had set my X Server Driver to “vesa” for some reason. I changed that to ATI, my video card manufacturer. I continued with the other steps and mostly hit Enter throughout unless I knew what to change. I got to the frequency range and inputted the correct numbers.

After finishing the reconfiguration of my display settings, I did a CTRL+BACKSPACE to restart the xserver and make the settings go into effect.

My display was finally normal again.

How to Kill Your Ubuntu: Impatience!


I was impatient.

I killed my Ubuntu system.


Despite what I said in a previous post, despite all the warnings, I was anxious and impatient and I went and installed the Release Candidate of Ubuntu 6.10 Edgy last night. I couldn’t wait 5 days for the final release. Stupid me.

Now I can’t load X and my cordless keyboard from my keyboard/mouse combo is not working in CLI (command line interface). It’s rendered useless (without a degree in Linux-ism! <grin>). Although I haven’t really looked into it… I don’t know if I really want to. There were a lot of errors during the upgrade so, I don’t want to spend the rest of 2006 fixing it! I wish I could just type in: $ sudo fix-it –now

Of course, in my impatience, I didn’t really back up anything. Now I have to figure out how to access my Linux partition (either from Windows XP or a Live CD) and copy what I want to keep to my Data partition (FAT32).

There’s not much to backup. I’d like to keep my Thunderbird emails and settings, though… oh, and possibly my Amarok settings and data. There’s some music, pictures, and videos I’d also like to move. As for other Ubuntu-specific configs or software, that’s not really important.

BUT, there is a couple positive things to this (believe it or not)…

First, my Ubuntu is my first-time Ubuntu installation and has been installed since April (I think?). Since then, there’s been a lot of tinkering, customizing, testing, updating, re-tinkering, etc, that my system has gained a lot of peculiarities and issues that I can’t get rid of… like my issue with transparent panels killing my x-server and crashing Ubuntu. Re-doing my system will allow me to start over from scratch with a brand new system. I know my way around it now and I know what I want, what I don’t need to try, and what not to do (like install a RC on top of a highly tinkered system — shut up, I know now!).

Second, with a new Ubuntu version from scratch, it will give me more material to write for my blog! I plan on documenting most of my experiences, issues, and reviews. Hopefully, it will help the newbies experiencing fear, uncertainty, and doubt about using Linux.

Wish me luck!