Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Tag: litl

Fedora 12 & ChromeOS

It has been great to see Fedora 12 release this week. Apart from the major kerfuffle over PackageKit (which I understand, even if I don’t recognise the problem), it seems to have gone really well – especially since the reaction in the critical press has been surprisingly un-critical. Hardware support seems to be good, including graphics, which is slightly surprising given the huge amount of change in this area, viz.:

“So, of the four “major” distributions over the past month (Ubuntu 9.10, Mandriva 2010, openSuSE 11.2 and Fedora 12), the only one that didn’t crash, hang or otherwise misbehave on at least one of my laptop/netbook/nettop systems was Fedora.” – “Saving the ‘Best’ for Last“, J A Watson at ZDNet.

I think this is a tremendous accomplishment by the people working on this stuff, and the release team, given the short and punchy nature of this development schedule. Fedora 13 has a great base to start from, although it also has to live up to what seems to be a pretty good Fedora 12 release.

It was also interesting to see that news of Google’s Chrome OS hasn’t really overshadowed the release: yes, people are writing a bit about it, but it hasn’t really set the world alight in the same way Wave did a few weeks ago. And you know what – I think it’s because it’s really not a terribly hot idea. In fact, I would say that Fedora 12 and Gnome Shell (the preview of part of Gnome 3) is actually a better Chrome OS than Chrome  OS.

The stuff that Chrome supposedly brings to the table, I already have. My netbook unsuspends in 5 seconds flat, and it lives its life “on”. This fast boot stuff is basically worthless to me. The user experience of Chrome OS is surprisingly close to what Gnome Shell already offers; and of course I’m able to run proper applications not just web-based ones. And, actually, I think Moblin actually gets a lot of this stuff right already: particularly the deep integration between the desktop shell and web applications. If I’m honest, this just looks to me like another Google “re-invent the world and outspend the people already innovating in this area”-type project. If Google were not so fat on advertising revenue, there is no way they could make a play like this.

And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sold on the people already innovating in this area already. I’ve written before about litl’s webbook – which ChromeOS seems to be aimed squarely at. If I were litl, I would be pretty deeply worried, since a web-based OS with Ubuntu underpinnings running on custom hardware is basically a rough description of both projects. And you can bet that Google (or, their hardware partners) aren’t going to be knocking these out at $700 a pop.

I’m deeply unconvinced by this “web apps only” approach, anyway. A browser is not the be all and end all, and files exist on disk for a reason: “it’s too complex for normal people” argument just does not stack up at all. What ChromeOS, and litl and others, are doing is saying “we can make a computing experience as simple as a television”, which is fine. But then you get a computing experience just like a television, with minimal interactivity and flexibility. I mean, custom hardware is great, but one size doesn’t fit all – you have to talk to cameras, printers, mobile phones, and all manners of other gadgetry. That needs OS support. Are Google going to come up with some kind of USB-to-website system so my camera’s photos can be uploaded via flikr? In what world of UI interaction does that even make sense?

What you end up with is an emasculated system where apps don’t talk to each other or share content easily (can you insert images into Google Docs directly from flikr?). It’s entirely retrograde, and a non-compelling view of computing which limits users to various hard-coded paths of functionality. For simple stuff like sending e-mail or browsing the news online, it’s fine. For “harder” stuff like attaching a document to an e-mail: well, you’d better hope that you use Google Docs and GMail and that those apps can talk to each other. Better hope, though, you don’t have a video camera and want to edit some clips – there’s no website for that yet, so you’re stuffed, bud. And even when it arrives, it’s going to take a while to upload those hundreds of megabytes of Little Eric walking for the first time, because that ADSL connection you have with 8Mb download has only a 512K upload.

It’s clear these “computers” are only going to have a very limited appeal. And this, to me, is where Fedora (and other free OSes) shine. You can have the Moblin interface, or a proper Gnome desktop. The hardware support is great; it will work on your netbook or on your full desktop. You can make the choice to cut down and simplify the interface, and not lose the ability to run the more complicated apps.

If I were to prognosticate, I would say that litl will be around for maybe a couple of years, but not much more. ChromeOS, Moblin and the like will find their place on cheap photo-frame-like touch PCs which people will scatter around the home, but there will still be a real PC in the corner.

litl breaks cover – what to think?

So, litl has finally broken cover – I had written previously some first thoughts based on the various tid-bits that had leaked, and I thought it might be interesting to follow up on this. Sadly, it doesn’t seem that I had missed anything particularly big: this is supposed to sit like a photo frame in various places in your home, can connect up to a TV but doesn’t really do any multimedia stuff itself, doesn’t have non-wifi wireless, and doesn’t have a touchscreen. In short, it’s a big Chumby, and very similar to both that and Joggler.

I still don’t get why they went to the effort to design their own hardware. Ok, moving parts are gone – that’s good (although, it has a CF drive? Aren’t those hard drives writ small?). Aside from that, this is just a bit of a bendy netbook. One hopes they didn’t spend too much on the design of that. And the controller: well, ok, it has a wheel and a button, and the Mac-like dispensation with other stuff probably makes it reasonably easy. But infra-red: oh dear. This isn’t like the Wii wand; you need line-of-sight.

The software interface is obviously a bit different to what’s on the market at the moment, but not that far a departure from the likes of Joggler. It’s built around channels, which is a familiar concept from TV. I’m not totally sold on this: the channel concept is beginning to die a death precisely because it doesn’t work in the modern era, and it reminds me a bit of early computer UIs which were designed around physical desks and files (which is partly why we still call them “desktops”). However, I’m willing to give it a go and see if it grabs me – the proof of these puddings is always in the eating.

What slightly scares me is the use-cases set out on the website. “View photos”. “View photos on your TV!”. “Get the weather”. “Get movie listings”. “Access the web”. Etc. Oh, and “plug it into your TV”. Ok, I can see some point (although, I’m not really feeling this). But not a word on the point I made previously: battery life. Being portable and light is great if you can move it around freely. Will the battery life keep up with that? How will it work? If the litl ends up being tethered to the mains for the most part, suddenly most of the appeal I can think of has flown out of the window.

And then, the big, big disappointment: litl want $700 for this. Assuming a decent exchange rate, that’s still £450 with the best will in the world. Plus they want an extra £10 or so for the remote control, which bafflingly is an optional extra. Looking at what that would buy me in on the High Street if I went out this afternoon:

  • £250 gets a 10″ Atom-based netbook with storage built in (yes, it’s a PC)
  • £450 gets me the same netbook but with added mobile broadband, so not only can I take it everywhere around the house, I can take it around the country and still access my stuff
  • £150 buys me a Joggler, which for my money does a lot of what litl does but has a touch screen and is even more portable. It’s not as flexible or powerful I guess, but I could buy three of these for one litl and I can text mobiles directly from it.
  • £140 buys me a Chumby – less portable, less flexible, more interactive.
  • £340 wins me a Fizzbook Spin. It’s ruggedized, the screen’s more adjustable as is the webcam, it has a handle and the orientation adjustment. It also has the important touchscreen.
  • £300 also buys me various TV media centres which play photos, video, browse the web etc. Sure, it’s stuck under the TV.

In reality, how many of these are actually in competition with litl? Probably not many directly, although Joggler comes very close. It depends what you mean by “in competition”, though. I know a couple of people who leave a laptop around in their living room for accessing the web, so I vaguely understand what litl are aiming at. I’m just not sure this is on target, though, and for all the nice design it’s missing (unless I’m mistaken, which I could be) a touch screen and wireless wand – both of which I think are crucial features if you want people to either pick this up or use it from the sofa. A keyboard is entirely useless in both those scenarios.

So, I’m inevitably feeling a bit disappointed. I believe they’re missing a trick: not because they don’t have a good idea; I think it is a good idea (in most respects, anyway) and it appears to have been executed well. However, I think also that times have changed since this thing was on the drawing board. One excerpt from the “software essay” on the litl site stood out for me:

“Let’s say you have a litl at home, a litl in your weekend home, and a litl plugged into your TV.”

Wow, what an assumption to start from. Are they really aiming this device at people with a second home who can afford to drop $2000+ on three netbooks? That’s not the economic climate I see around me today.

And, I think that sums up my problem with this device. What functions it has seem to be well designed. But, it’s a complete luxury device. It’s not enabling me to do things I couldn’t do before. It’s simple, yes, but when I think about it, simple isn’t the first word that springs to mind: the first word I thought of when I saw this was “decadent”. Decadence of design, of implementation, and of product. That’s not a good thing.

Update 12:45 – there’s a pretty enlightening interview with John Chuang up now too; and the absolute last sentence is probably the most revealing: “We can have a long-term view because we’re self-funded. We know we have a great device, and right now we want to make sure we sell it to customers who are buying it for the right reasons.”

Not just decadent design of a decadent product, but now decadent marketing. Buying a product for the right reasons?! Whoa. This just smells of multi-millionaire play-thing, a la Chandler, OLPC, to name but a few.

Update 13:40 – last update I’m making on this. Engadget, who leaked the hardware first, are not impressed by the price either.

The other point I wanted to make in this post but forget: the UI is very similar to the Palm Pre, for me, or the Nokia N900. Both of which devices will be a. cheaper than this and b. much more useful to me. But then, I guess I’m just not the right sort of customer 🙂

Last point – it appears possible this thing runs Ubuntu under the hood. The Crunchbase listing for litl has Canonical down as an OS service provider, and there’s a PPA on launchpad for “bfallik-litl” – bfallik on twitter has not tweeted, but is friends with Peter Teichman (of Hula fame) and other known litlers.

Given Havoc Pennington, ex of Red Hat, is the Director of Operating Systems or something at litl, that’s a bit of a surprising choice for me, but I guess the OS layer is likely to be pretty thin anyway – the stuff on top is Javascript-based somehow, possibly the whole thing is running in a Mozilla window much like the Pyro Desktop.

First thoughts on litl’s Easel.

I’ve been waiting for litl to break cover for what seems like forever. The people seem to be all extremely smart, and it sounded like they had such a great idea, even if no-one knew what it was. However, engadget have seen some FCC information on a new “Easel” product from litl – and I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed, because it’s a netbook.

Of course, it almost certainly isn’t. The FCC photos take the extremely strange step of photographing it standing on the top screen edge: a position many netbooks wouldn’t be able to reach (some do, but not many). That, combined with a strange rubber insert along that top edge and a conveniently located power button make me think this thing is designed to spend much of it’s life in that position. Much like a photograph standing on the mantlepiece, this thing is probably designed to sit in your living space and “do stuff”. I could be wrong; the IR detector on the front of the keyboard is presumably needed for something, but there could be another built into the bezel somewhere (the FCC photos appear to show one). Interestingly, it’s designed by FIC apparently – the same people from whom OpenMoko spun out of.

What “stuff”, I’m not sure. It doesn’t look like it has a touchscreen (and it has the keyboard attached), but it does seem to have a webcam. Presumably you can Skype or something through this thing, but to interact with it you have to pick it up and flip it over? I suppose one possibility is that it has insane battery life, a wake-on-wlan function somehow and doesn’t need to be permanently strapped into a power socket, but I don’t know – having an Intel Atom and stuff probably means it doesn’t do that.

Doesn’t seem to have DVD/TV even though it has an HDMI output, doesn’t have 3G, doesn’t have touchscreen, etc. If it’s supposed to do something like a Joggler that would make some sense, except that again it doesn’t seem quite so interactive. Can’t believe it’s any good for gaming.

So, I’m kind of at a loss. If you’re going to all the effort of designing your own hardware, there’s usually a reason – a la OLPC. But this doesn’t seem to have many interesting features, except that it’s totally legacy and peripheral free – it only has one USB socket. Presumably the software has tonnes of interesting features, but in these days of Maemo and Moblin I wonder how close to the state of the art this is, or whether it’s in a kind of Daikatana situation. If it turns out to be another Chumby – well, that’s nice, but again disappointing (Chumby already exists, after all).

We only have around a week to wait to find out apparently, but I’m kind of left feeling “what’s the point”? If this is really just a netbook for accessing web content, I don’t understand it at all. You don’t need custom hardware for that, and people already know how to use web browsers. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s vastly underwhelming so far.