Linux laptop lust

Laptop hardware is an unconquered frontier for Linux -- a place where the cutting edge sometimes slices free software to shreds.

Topics: Linux,

My old steam-powered portable computer is finally showing signs of age. It never did like the Internet very much anyway — now the merest suggestion that it get up to speed on full-motion video computer games or MP3 songs elicits senile disapproval. Increasingly, I’ve found it hard to restrain my drooling, lustful greed for a sleek, ultra-cool, oh-so-late-1999 laptop. Even though I know that a new laptop stays hip for about three minutes before it becomes obsolete, I still gotta have one. My credit card is ready.

There’s just one problem. My new laptop needs to be Linux-compatible. I make my living covering the world of free software and I’m just not going to be satisfied with a computer that only runs Windows. I’m planning to be a dual-boot kind of guy, flipping back and forth between operating systems according to my whimsy.

But am I just asking for trouble? Laptops — especially brand-new laptops — are notorious for causing headaches to users of the Linux-based operating system. Laptop manufacturers delight in packing their machines with newfangled chips and gadgets whose design seems to change by the hour. Free software hackers, understandably, are often one or two steps behind those manufacturers in the struggle to write code that allows Linux to make use of such hardware.

Indeed, one of the main raps against the Linux-based operating system is its lack of support for brand-new hardware. The problem is that it’s difficult for Linux hackers to gain access to the hardware specifications that they need in order to write code that will work with that hardware. This, in turn, is because many hardware manufacturers, especially those who aim at the consumer marketplace rather than at technical users, deem the Linux market too small to warrant accommodating.

It’s not all doom and gloom. In some niches, vast progress has been made over the last six to 12 months. The leading makers of 3-D video chips, for example, are racing to ensure that their newest goodies work with Linux; they are increasingly aware that the avid game players who tend to buy the fastest 3-D chips are also often free software hackers.

Will the entire computer hardware industry fall into line? Or is this a case where free software may be hitting some of its limits — consigned to always lag a little behind cutthroat hardware manufacturers constantly pushing the envelope of technological innovation? As I researched, for my own selfish reasons, the question of which new laptop might be most compatible with Linux, I found myself unable to get any definitive answers to these questions — but I did get a close, illuminating look at the front lines of free software.



Consider, for example, the case of the much despised “winmodem.”

Legally speaking, the term “Winmodem” is a trademark owned by 3Com Corp., which itself owns US Robotics, one of the world’s leading modem manufacturers. But more generally speaking, the word “winmodem” is used to describe a class of products — sometimes called “software modems” — in which key telecommunication functions that were once handled by modem hardware have been moved into the domain of software. For this software to work correctly, your computer needs to be running, you guessed it, Windows.

Winmodems are popular with both desktop and laptop makers because they are cheaper than hardware modems, and therefore lower the overall cost of a computer. They also save valuable space — a paramount consideration for laptop makers. But Linux users hate the darn things.

“Most machines that have a built-in modem have a winmodem,” says Nathan Myers, founder of Linux Laptops, a vendor of Linux-preinstalled notebook computers, “and as far as Linux is concerned that is just junk.”

It’s just no fun to buy a new IBM Thinkpad and then discover that no matter how good a hacker you are, you simply can’t get the built-in modem to work with Linux. There are workarounds — external modems or network cards that can be plugged into PCMCIA slots or otherwise connected — but who wants to use up a valuable PCMCIA slot or lug around an external modem when your computer already has one built in?

For Linux users, the fact that most Sony Vaio laptops come with modems that don’t require Windows has been enough to encourage a wave of Vaio buying. At the August O’Reilly Open Source conferences, Vaios were a common sight — the new status symbol of the free-software elite. But Sony offers no panacea — and some of the latest model Vaios, points out Myers, now include winmodems.

Just attempting to figure out what modem is inside a particular laptop can be a major hassle. Not only is there a bewildering abundance of laptops on the market, but there isn’t even any modem consistency within a particular brand. Some IBM Thinkpads, for example, use a particular type of winmodem made by Lucent. But other models employ IBM’s own patented MWave technology, a complex combination of sound and modem features.

The Linux community, in typically anarchic fashion, is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to address the problem of winmodems. In classic do-it-yourself fashion, scores of hackers have busied themselves with attempts to write their own “drivers” — swatches of code that allow a particular operating system to communicate with a particular piece of hardware — with or without the help of the hardware manufacturer. But so far, they’ve had little success.

Part of the problem, says Myers, “is that new hardware tends to be more complicated than old hardware.” Reverse engineering a set of technologies such as IBM’s MWave is no simple business.

“The thing is that the MWave controls the parallel port, two serial ports, infrared port, softmodem, sound playback and recording,” says Dale Wick, a programmer who has been striving to hack his way around the problem. “Changing the settings on it changes how the laptop interacts with the world. Because it integrates virtually every port on the computer, it is extremely complex to work with. Where a typical driver for a serial port or modem card is less than about 2,000 lines [of code], the install disks for MWave uses over a megabyte of space — many tens of thousands of lines.”

“What this means is that even with all of the technical documents, it would take thousands of hours to develop a complete driver, instead of a hundred or so hours,” says Wick.

And in this case, adds Wick, the Linux community doesn’t have the necessary technical documents. This leads to the second line of attack for would-be winmodem users — getting the manufacturers to release drivers designed for Linux. Ideally, free-software hackers would prefer that the source code to the drivers be released to the general public, so it could be included in the Linux kernel — the core of the Linux-based operating system. But, even if source code was never released, most hackers would be happy just to get drivers that worked with Linux — what they really, really want is for their hardware to work. Period.

For example, nearly 200 IBM Thinkpad owners have signed a petition asking IBM to provide Linux support for its proprietary MWave technology.

Of course, to an $87 billion-a-year company like IBM, 200 names don’t add up to all that much. Tom Figgatt, Linux segment executive for the IBM Netfinity Servers group, says that while “we have certainly heard demand from segments of the laptop community, I would say that it is not coming from the broad business user.”

IBM, in general, gets fairly high marks from hackers for its record of cooperation with the free-software community. As Figgatt was eager to stress, the high-performance Netfinity servers will run Linux — “this is the brand where we are leading with Linux,” he noted. But he would make no commitment to announcing Thinkpad support for Linux, other than to say, cryptically, that “we might have news to announce in a few weeks.”

“We are certainly encouraging the various suppliers we work with to move to open-source support,” added Figgatt, though he declined to single out any such suppliers by name. One such supplier could be Lucent, a major supplier of winmodems to the entire computer industry. But Lucent declined to make any official statement concerning potential plans for Linux support.

One winmodem maker, PCTel, has announced a “linmodem” that works with Linux — but according to Linux Laptops’ Myers, “People are not very impressed with PCTel’s technology.”

They’d rather get their Thinkpads working. And maybe, one day, they will. Linux hackers are nothing if not indefatigable. At “Linux on Laptops” — Kenneth Harker’s phenomenal clearinghouse for information on how to get Linux to run on your laptop of choice — there are hundreds of detailed accounts of how people managed to get Linux running on a particular laptop.

And there is always the possibility that in the future, hardware advancements will make current winmodem worries moot. At a Bay Area Linux Users Group meeting in June, Linus Torvalds declared his belief that future hardware design would solve many of today’s incompatibility problems. Alan Cox, a leading Linux hacker, sees a not-too-distant future when “the end-user can buy standards-compliant devices that ‘just work’ — on Linux, on PC, on Mac and potentially in the future on Palm-type devices.”

A future in which everything “just works” might be a tad too utopian for everyone to believe in, but it’s certainly worth working toward. For the moment, alas, a look at the world of Linux and laptops reveals that that utopia is still a good ways off. And I’m still not sure which laptop to buy.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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