Monday, June 22, 2009

Support & Open Source

My love/hate relationship with my Dell Mini 12 continues.

On the love side, every time I see folks with other laptops, I think to myself, my God that thing is huge and smugly congratulate myself on my tiny machine.

On the hate side, Dell's proprietary crap makes this thing a PITA on Ubuntu (wireless driver + graphics card). This was mostly fixed by Jaunty, which basically just works on the mini-12 (to get the graphics card fully supported you just have to enable the ubuntu-mobile ppa). However, the problem with relying on a PPA etc is that everything is a bit more fragile. So, for example, when Ubuntu recently pushed a kernel upgrade (-> 2.26.28-13), the graphics broke. Of course, Ubuntu keeps your old kernel around after an upgrade just in case your system gets hosed, so I was able to boot from the old kernel with working graphics, but suddenly the wireless network card wasn't being recognized by the old kernel.

All of this was very sad: I was left with either a working network card or a working graphics driver. On the assumption that it would be a while before the graphics driver was fixed, I wasted a good hour trying to get wireless working again with my old kernel (networking requires a non-free driver, but it had just worked with ubuntu on the initial install).

Tonight I decided I'd rather have ugly graphics than no wireless and went back to the new kernel. While at it, I decided to drop into the ubuntu IRC channels to see what I could find. I went to #ubuntu-mobile, explained my situation, and left the window there while working. Within a half hour or so, the packager of the ubuntu-mobile PPA was talking to me. I was able to give him a useful error message that instantly told him what the bug was. He released a new version of the graphics module that fixed the bug, I installed, rebooted, and confirmed it worked.

This was quite cool. Within 1/2 hour of looking for help through online chat, I found the developer of the software that had broken. Within an hour the problem was fixed, not just for me, but for all users.

Here's what I'm thinking: this is why open-source development works. This is what's so cool about linux. I remember stories of my mother making similar breakthroughs with Microsoft support when she'd found easily reproducible bugs in Excel graphs -- only in her case she got a 8-step workaround to the bug and no fix. With open-source package management tools, it's easy to push updates out to all users fast, so a problem like this can be fixed right away.

Here's the problem, though: my solution wouldn't have been remotely possible if I was still using the version of ubuntu Dell installed. Dell has no one in their phone support team who could be nearly this helpful, and most likely has no one in its support system who could access someone this helpful. It strikes me that when companies think about using linux, they should think about harnessing the power of the linux user and developer communities as well. In short, maybe they should simply try to hire this guy to maintain a package archive for them that will make their hardware work with vanilla ubuntu. It seems it might work better than their home-rolled distro anyway, and it would certainly be better supported.


Michael said...

Oh, so you got a netbook? I was looking at the Dell line but heard that they didn't work well with vanilla Ubuntu. I'm leaning towards an Asus, Acer, or HP at the moment. Are you finding the processing power of the Atom to be sufficient for general usage?

Tom Hinkle said...

It's not too often that the processing power lets me down. I tend to leave fewer applications open at a time than I would otherwise, but that's probably good for my productivity anyway.