It’s my choice dammit

Anybody who tells me I can’t use a program because it’s not open source, go suck on rms. I’m not interested. 99% of that I run tends to be open source, but that’s my choice, dammit.

I got my shiny new iPod Touch yesterday and even though I really like it for a number of different reasons, I can’t help but feeling a little bit guilty. I like Apple in general, but the iPod is pretty much as closed as a system gets and I don’t feel too good about giving my hard money to something that is rather opposite to what I think computing should be like.

Though I can’t shake off the feelings of guilt (and am concerned by the direction in which popular computing is going), I let practicality take the upper hand in this case. The reason I bought the iPod Touch is that there is no other device on the market that lets me do just what I want to with the Touch. I needed a light, mobile internet connection device that could connect via Wi-fi and fit in my pocket. Also, I didn’t want to spend a small fortune (for a college student). I didn’t want a phone with a plan (I hate phones) and I didn’t want to shell out $500+ for an unlocked Nexus One.

What I needed was basically a web-ready PDA for the modern day and the iPod Touch pretty much fits the bill. The calendar and mail apps work wonderfully with Google services and there are some good to-do list apps available cheap. If there was an Android equivalent to it (say the Motorola Droid without the phone part) I would buy it instead in a heartbeat. But there isn’t and I need something that gets the job done today.

Though I am very much an open source advocate, I’m not fanatical about it. I use OS X on a regular basis because I think it looks good and the UNIX underneath lets me do most things I need it to do (except perhaps package management, but I haven’t really tried that). On the other hand, I went completely Microsoft-free last week. I stopped using proprietary formats long ago, preferring plain text, HTML and PDF. But I nuked my Windows partition simply because I didn’t use it any more. I was back up and running with a beautiful fresh, 64 bit Arch Linux install in about an hour.

Having a philosophy and values and ideals is awesome, but in the end I choose technology that serves me best. If that means I have to spend a few dollars lining a closed giant’s coffers, then so be it. The reason I grew to love Linux was because it was so easy to tinker with and because I could write programs very easily. I never quite figured out how to write serious code in Windows and I’ve never been a big IDE guy. If Windows had let me program and tinker as easily, I would have probably stuck to Windows. Some would argue that Windows will never be that way because of its closed nature. I’m not sure I agree, but then again, I can’t say I’ve tinkered enough with proprietary systems to tell what can and cannot be done.

And of course no conversation on openness today can be complete without some mention of the iPad. I think it’s an interesting piece of tech, but it’s not something I will buy because I don’t have a plausible use case for it. I either want something I can carry in my pocket (the iPod Touch or iPhone) or I want a full fledged computer. However, I also understand that I’m not the iPad’s target audience. The target audience is people who don’t do a lot of typing and are more digital consumers than they are proper computer users. And though the iPad may be unimpressive from a technical perspective, it will almost certainly sell like hot cakes (as my friend puts it). And no doubt Google will push out an Android-based competitor to it within the year.

Part of my misgivings about buying the Touch has to do with the fact that at heart, I am a tinkerer. I like cracking things open to see what the parts do and then putting the parts back in a slightly different just to see what will happen. Seeing a mass market popular device that is so tinkerer unfriendly does unsettle me. But there are also things that I have no interest in tinkering with. I don’t want to jailbreak my Touch or run my own “unauthorized” programs on it, because there are far better things for me to do with my time. Computer technology is at the point of maturity where you don’t have to tinker to get things to work the way you work and I think that in general is a good thing. I care more about users having a good experience and getting their job done than I do about running a completely free software stack. If that means I need to throw a little proprietary into the mix, so be it.

Linus Torvalds does sum it up really well for those open source users who aren’t primarily motivated by morals or ideals: most of what we run is open source because it works and gets the job done. And most importantly, it’s my choice.

In search of a Mobile Internet Device

I bought my first laptop about a year and a half ago nd I’ve been really pleased with it. It’s a 15.4″ Toshiba laptop sporting a 3.2GHz AMD Turion, 1 GB of RAM and a 160GB hard disk. I dual boot Windows Vista and Arch Linux and I haven’t had any problems with it so far. I think 15″ is a good size for a laptop that I use for a lot of coding and real work, not just light internet stuff. However, it’s getting a bit of a pain to carry around. I don’t mind taking it from my room to the engineering building to ‘set up shop’ for a few hours, but I think twice about lugging it about with me all day. And the battery life is nothing to write home about.

With professors piling on the homework, midterms around the corner and activities shifting into high gear, it’s getting really hard for me to keep my schedule in my head. I use Google Calendar with the lightweight Todoist as scheduling tools and it works pretty well when it’s time to sit down and make a plan. But I have to remember to actually put down my to-dos on my calendar and I tend to forget that. When I’m moving from one class to the next, it’s easy for me to forget when my friends asked me to meet up. I’ve missed one meeting already this week and almost skipped another. I seriously need to reconsider my scheduling strategy.

I’m seriously considering some sort of mobile internet device. I have wifi almost everywhere on campus and so anything that let’s me get to the internet with a decent size screen will do. Looking around the web there are a number of options that I’ve come across:

1. A Netbook

Take a laptop and make it drop a few pounds. Netbooks are becoming pretty popular on college campuses. The only major downside to these devices is the small screen size. The one in particular that I’m looking at is the MSI Wind. With 1 GB of RAM and a 1.6GHz (which looks like it can be overclocked to almost 2GHz), this is a very powerful package in a small form factor. Another great advantage is that it’s a full computer which means that I’m not limited to just using the internet. On the flip side, being a full computer means that it is something that needs to be turned on and off, or at least opened and closed. Though it’s small enough to be carried around almost anywhere, it’s a bit too much for a quick information recorder. I really would like something that could be slipped into a pocket. At about $300 to $350 for one with a long battery life, that’s a pretty considerable commitment for a college student.

2. The iPod Touch

Yes, the fairest one of them all. I don’t need the iPhone, the plans are way too expensive for the amount of calling and texting I do. However, take away the phone and the rest of it looks like a pretty good deal. It’s small and light enough to carried in the pocket all the time. It’s internet connectivity is good and many of the websites I’ll be using have interfaces made for the Touch’s small screen size. It also syncs very nicely with my Mac’s Calendar and Address Book. At $229 (less on Amazon) it’s certainly the cheapest device I’m considering. However, it is a closed platform, and if I ever find myself needing to push beyond what it’s capabilities are, I might be hitting a brick wall. Not to mention that most of the internet really wasn’t built for a 3.5inch screen.

3. Sony Mylo

This one of the devices I stumbled upon. Mylo is short for “my life online” and it’s designed to be an internet communicator focussed on college students. It’s meant to be more of an internet mesaging device with some media capabilities rather than an organizer. As a result it lacks any built in utilities for scheduling or organzing. But I do like the design, especially the full keyboard. However at about $300, I might as well get a netbook for the same price.

4. Nokia N810

This is a Linux-based internet device which is similar to the Mylo in terms of design. It packs a Mozilla based browser along with Flash and a Skype application. Being an open Linux platform, there are a ton of free apps available for it. Like the Mylo, it too has a QWERTY keyboard and is small enough to put into a pocket. However the lack of any builtin calendar or todo system combined with the $300 price tag does put it into the “might as well get a netbook” range.

5. The Archos line

The Archos line of internet devices do merit a mention even though I’m really not sondifering them because of the price tag. They come with a large screen and are very internet capable. However they are meant to be mostly media devices, which isn’t something I really need.

There are some really interesting options out there, all of which have their pros and cons. I’m still actively on the lookout and won’t be making a decision for a few weeks now. But at this point I am leaning towards the Touch. Not only is it light with a nice interface, it’s also the lowest price of all the options I’ve considered. However, I’m still open to suggestions and if I find something that I really like, I could change my mind.