Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Always Innovating's "Touchbook"

While taking notes at conferences and lectures, I have learned two things:

  1. There are never enough outlets to keep the average laptop running all day.

  2. Graphical representations are a pain to record with a mouse.

Most devices I've found which handle these use cases are prohibitively expensive or tied to proprietary software which I can't easily work with or transition to. After much searching and waiting, I found one device that met all my requirements: the Touchbook.

Built on open source software and hardware, the Touchbook offers a touchscreen, modular keyboard/touchpad, and 10 hour battery life. What I mean by modular keyboard is that the main components are contained in the screen/tablet, which can be detached from the keyboard/bottom and used as a standalone device. The battery life is due to both the use of an ARM processor and the dual batteries in both the tablet and the keyboard. This means it has less processing power than Atom devices, but I do all my heavy computation remotely, anyway.

When I say the hardware is open, I mean it both in spirit and practice. In addition to being able to detach the screen, opening the device and accessing the internal components is as easy as the flip of a switch. There are 2 mini-USB ports and 5 full-sized ones (3 internal and 2 external.) The included wifi and bluetooth cards occupy 2 of the internal USB slots, although I yanked the bluetooth and plug it externally when I need it. In general, the hardware seems to be very good quality, especially considering the price. The only complaint I have with the hardware is that the screen outweighs the base and leads to a tendency for the device to roll when at too extreme an angle. There is, however, a counter-balance attachment offered for free, which I haven't had a chance to get yet. It will be included with all future shipments. Because main storage is provided via an SD card reader, I'm told it is simple to switch between multiple operating systems or configurations by changing out the SD card.

The official operating system, AIOS, is a derivative of Angstrom tweaked to work with the touch interface. It, unlike the hardware, is still in beta and will definitely benefit from further work. Overall, it's a very nice OS with the ipkg installer and most of the configuration tools one might expect. However, it took me some work to get the programs I wanted and the to fix a few issues I've encountered. While touch and rotation are supported, there are still a few bugs of varying degree. My least favorite involves noise when drawing/clicking, but it doesn't make it unusable for my purposes. Support has been great, but again I don't think it would be as straightforward for novices. In evidence of both points, the founder of the company compiled a kernel for me with support for a USB wired ethernet card there were no pre-compiled drivers for. There has been some work to port other operating systems, such as Ubuntu and Android. In fact, the company has offered a free Touchbook to anyone who can get Android working (along with certain features.) Granted, one would need access to a device to test, but there is an emulator which can be used for most of the work.

Overall, I recommend the Touchbook for people with needs similar to mine. If you want a long-lasting, Linux-friendly, tablet computer, it's the way to go. The hardware is good quality and quite modular. The software, when finished, could be great for users of varying degrees of experience. Right now, it's only for the brave and adept, but the community is good and we'll all work together to make what we need of it. Come join us.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Partial fix

New development on the banning. It looks like Google has recognized that it was a bit hasty to just pull tethering apps from the Android Market altogether. Here's what they had to say:

"We inadvertently unpublished your application for all mobile providers; if you like, we can restore your app so that all Android Market users outside the T-Mobile US network will have access to your application."

It doesn't really give a definite answer to my original questions, but it hints at a direction. This seems to indicate that they have a mechanism in place to filter Market listings by carrier. I'm still not too keen on Google allowing the Market to be controlled by carriers at all, but at least we might not have to keep track of half a dozen different Terms of Service just to figure out what we can and can't publish. Users may not agree with my mild optimism here, since they'll be the ones with limited access to apps.

Thanks for all the support and discussion of this issue. I like to think that community pressure was what led Google to reconsider this decision. Keep it up and maybe we can free the Market from carrier rules altogether, or at least make sure that the Android OS proper stays open and suits the community's needs.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Banned from the Market... ok.

So, I've had my first real clash with the Open Handset Allience today. Wifi Tether for Root Users, an app I'm a contributor for, got banned from the Android Market for violating the Developer Distribution Agreement. The reasoning provided is a rather twisted web, as it turns out. According to the agreement:

"Google enters into distribution agreements with device manufacturers and Authorized Carriers to place the Market software client application for the Market on Devices. These distribution agreements may require the involuntary removal of Products in violation of the Device manufacturer’s or Authorized Carrier’s terms of service."

And then, the T-Mobile Terms of Service say the following (as of 11-18-2008):

"Your Data Plan is intended for Web browsing, messaging, and similar activities on your device and not on any other equipment. Unless explicitly permitted by your Data Plan, other uses, including for example, tethering your device to a personal computer or other hardware, are not permitted."

This raises some interesting questions about this "open" platform. Android phones are supposed to be released for other carriers in the future, right? Does this mean that apps in the Market have to adhere to the ToS for only T-Mobile, even when other carriers sign on? Will all apps have to adhere to the ToS for every carrier that supports Android phones? Why is all of this enforcement Google's job, in the first place? If T-Mobile wants to force people to pay for broadband plans in addition to their phone data, it's their job to either make that attractive to users or strongarm them into it by, say, instituting data caps. Playing cop for cell carriers doesn't really seem like the ideal way to establish credibility as a promoter of free software and a strong development community.

Aside from the issue of "authorized carriers," there are some otherwise valid uses of tethering software which users are now being denied. One of the apps banned was for tethering internet over Bluetooth. (We're working on adding it to ours, someday. See below.) With wifi tethering, the internet has to come in from the cell carrier, but Bluetooth tethering allows a user to connect their phone to a wireless router and then share it with a device that has Bluetooth but no wireless card. This use, by definition, can't violate the T-Mobile ToS, since it doesn't require their data plan at all. And that's not even to mention phones which have been set up to use other carriers who allow for tethering.

To add to the irony, one of the folks who helped develop the initial tethering scripts works for Google, I'm told. Another Google employee has forked Wifi Tether, added Bluetooth support to it, says he and his office-mates use it on their commute, and has even given us a patch we can merge in when we get the time. I know they're not any more responsible for this policy than I am, but it just makes me giggle to know that there's an underground presence inside the machine. Hopefully they (and you) can help us push for a really open Android instead of the same greedy corporate power plays we see from other mobile platforms.