Saturday, June 26, 2010

Locking Down Linux: Is it Necessary?

One thing I love about Linux is it's ability to be modular and customizable to degrees Windows users can only dream of it. The insides of the operating system are available to sift through if doing so peaks your fancy and the source code is free to take and edit. Many Linux Advocates, myself included, assert that our operating system of choice is more than ready for the "general public" or "average user". In recent years it seems the term "user friendliness" has become associated with the exact opposite of what I love about Linux:

Lack of freedom, and customization.

So long as "there is an app for that" it seems it really doesn't matter if your device is controlled by a company that feels it has a "moral responsibility" to filter content to it's users. The numbers speak for themselves, the iPhone has a 25% market share while the N900 had a 96% return rate for Vondaphone.

Is locking down your operating system so a user can't "hurt themselves" with it really the only way to sell a product in 2010?

Google seems to think so. It appears they thought correctly, Android has been rapidly gaining market share - so they must be doing something right. Will other distributions that are hoping to become more mainstream need to follow suit? Shuttleworth seems to think so. With MeeGo handhelds looming around the corner for later this year, I am wondering if they will also go down this path.

Before anyone says anything - yes I know we can jailbreak (or root) iPhones and Android devices, but honestly why should I have to hack at my own device just to have access to all the features it can offer?

What do you think? Is locking down the version of Linux we ship on devices the only way they are ever going to get sales with "Joe Normal"?
~Jeff Hoogland


  1. As a very recent explorer of Linux (as in three days ago!), I am finding that the Mint OS is quite user friendly. I can, however, see how some people (including some of my computer students) might be put off by things being "different."

    One example would be the menu options in Firefox - some of them are not in the same places as they are in versions of Firefox on my Windows machines. Is this a big deal? Not for me, but I could see how the "I-don't-like-change" crowd would be put off by it.

    Still, I don't think locking down Linux on devices should happen. The reputation has always been "hey, you can change this if you want to!" Why mess with that?

  2. as nokia basically bolted a limited phone capability onto their existing maemo platform, i am not surprised that it got high return rate. Nokia basically screwed up there.

    and i suspect they know they did, given how fast they want to get rid of the N900 and forget it ever existed.

  3. I sure hope Ubuntu doesn't go down that trail. If they do, I will quit using Ubuntu and start using Debian.

  4. In Ubuntu's current netbook thing they have quite a few grayed out options in the panel, lol! I certainly will never use a Linux that I can't configure and change to my liking.

  5. "why should I have to hack at my own device just to have access to all the features it can offer?"
    You don't have to 'hack' at anything. Buy yourself an unlocked device running Android.
    If you're locked in to some carriers device and preferred OS then that was still your choice.

  6. There's a difference between an OS that can be customized, but doesn't need to be, and an OS that requires customization. There exists a middle ground, where defaults provide ease of use, but other options are still there. Ubuntu is the prime example of it. There is lots you can do to configure it. Just because you don't have to right off the bat to get it working doesn't mean you can't.

    Why do people think that censorship and restriction come with ease of use. iPhone is easy to use. iPhone is restricted. They are two independent concepts, and I have faith that the FOSS community can find one without the other.

    Also, drop this idea that there's some "Linux" body. There are distros for a reason: different people want different stuff. Some people want to see the widespread proliferation of FOSS, and for that to happen, ease of use is a must. Some people want to have an OS that is ultra-powerful and uber-customizeable. That is good, but will never lead to a mainstream linux.

    So, we have different distros that reflect different niches, different desires and different attitudes. So if you want the Gentoo customization attidue, stop complaining about Ubuntu and go use gentoo, and if you want ease of use, go use Ubuntu and stop complaining about how Gentoo is hard to use. At the end of the day, what matters is that it's free and open, and there's something out there for everyone.

  7. @Glenn While I think carrier locks are bad, I was more so referring to having to "root" android devices you buy.

  8. Jeff, you are completely missing the point. iPhone sells are so high because of the quality. And the quality is very good _despite_ the software lock.

    Linux is near zero quality, almost everything is a struggle, so opening the sources of it does not help at all.

    And what is advantage of fixing everything by yourself? Do you fix your fridge by yourself too? A car? A TV? Maybe you work in some kind of repair service, but most people buy a device, to _use_ it. iPhones, Macs, serve as tool very well, Linux based PC -- not.

    It is everybody choice -- repairman or just a client spending time enjoying life.

  9. Linux is near zero quality, almost everything is a struggle, so opening the sources of it does not help at all.

    Old FUD, bandied about to justify using almost the same thing (OS X) but at considerable higher prices. Customizability doesn't mean low quality, just more options one might or might not choose to use. Modern day Linuxes are as pleasant to use and as easy to use (even easier in some cases) as the major commercial OSes.

    It is everybody choice -- repairman or just a client spending time enjoying life.

    Again the assumption that Linux is there for people to just fight their PC to get it to run. It simply isn't true. Linux, to use a silly term from the fruit world, just works. (Given that one uses supported hardware. Anything else is sheer stupidity).

    Then again, if somebody chooses to be an Eloi for the Cupertino Morlock...

  10. It's nothing wrong with locking some doors as long as the key is handed over to the user. I do the same with Linux for my mom and even my self. I guess we all can agree that it's a bad idea to be logged on as root (to many open doors?), so we use an account restricted user privileges (we don't want the user to get hurt), we use sudo instead (the key) for safety and security. I see no problem with this model and a UI can work the same way. I think most average users (on a mass market) prefer safe and secure access to the system trough user friendly UI applications. Power users should however be free to tinker under the hood if necessary (CLI, root access, source code etc.). That would to me be the big divider between GNU/Linux and the rest (from the claustrophobic products from Apple, to the gated community offered by Microsoft to promising hybrid environments from Google). I personally love the GNU/Linux freedom but the totally fragmented situation on the desktop is slowly driving me away from using it for anything that requires a desktop. Everything is fragmented, development tool chains, widget sets, desktop environments, packaging systems etc. I would not complain if they all where functional complete and rock solid but that is not the case. Seems like there is always some detail not working or missing in every distribution, update, configuration. I'm sick and tired of trying to keep my GNU/Linux desktop working for my family (of average Joe users). GNU/Linux will stay on the server side and on embedded devices where it makes sense but I think I eventually have to abandon it as my development environment for desktop applications and the shared family desktop :(

  11. I have tried Linux many times in the past years, being a previous "Windows Only" user I had alot of difficulty not only installing but configuring and using Linux in the past. More recently I have been tinkering with Ubuntu and Linux Mint. While these 2 have been headache free to install and setup, they have so far been a great experience for a new Linux user. I love how Linux is more stable than Windows and it simply works as it's supposed to. I have been reading alot and noticed a few articles stating Linux is becoming more widly used now than ever before, and this is thanks to Distrobutions like Ubuntu. Dell and HP have the option to buy computers with Linux pre-installed. I also have an Android phone (HTC Magic) and it simply works, it does everything I need it to do without having root access. I can see how more advanced users might like such functionality, but the question is, Why? What can you do with your Android phone once it's rooted? If you want more functionality beyond what the phone was made for why not just use a computer?

  12. Linux 4 years ago was painful
    Linux now is pretty nice

    Mint and ubuntu distributions are nice

  13. Smart marketer: people find our product difficult to use. There must be something wrong with our product.

    Dumb marketer: people find our product difficult to use. There must be something wrong with people

  14. I am all for making things easier to use... But that does not mean you need to limit the power user in the process.

  15. I'd like to ahve to "root" Ubuntu before messing ith it. I'd like to see a dialog asking you if you "really want to unlock your device".

    The reason for that is psychological. If you've messed up your OS because you were playing with sudo, you'll think it's the OS's fault. Warning users is a plus.

    What I don't want to see, however, is an Ubuntu that makes it hard to impossible to unlock and to use the full potential.

  16. The problem with the N900 is that it isn't a finished product, nothing else.

    For example : most of the apps don't work in portrait mode, the UI can be painfully slow to respond, there are some incredibly fugly parts to it (some of the default look of the browser for example), there is a poor selection of apps - not helped by the awful Ovi store.

    Let alone the fact that to get MMS support you have to install an app, which is just daft.

    I like my N900, but I was well aware it had these limitations - it strikes me that they very much don't know how to give it the same polish as Apple, and that is what it is, just polish

  17. If I recall a certain Apple phone didn't support MMS, copy, paste, or multi tasking for a long time after release...

    Plus for some - no portrait is a plus. I prefer to use the real keyboard and browser the internet in the same manner I do on a computer.