Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Elderly Gentleman and Linux

The ultimate test of a man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard. --G. Nelson

Several months ago I was lucky enough to have an email conversation 52 replies long with the well-loved Cory Doctorow, a sci-fi writer and EFF fellow. In it, he said:

I hope and expect that firms like ZaReason will be critical... but it'll be by articulating a story about value and functionality, not (just) values.

His comments supplied dozens of improvements at ZaReason, but this one: "articulating a story", was the most delightful. For once, I had the, "Hey, I can do that!" reply instead of the, "Please, o, please don't ask me to do more," response. Recording these interactions on The Inner Workings of Linux Hardware is nothing but fun.


Occasionally I fill for someone at our Berkeley office, answering the phone, helping people who are interested in ZaReason. One day I answered a call that gave me a perspective I wish I could share fully with developers, especially Canonical people.

The man calling had a quaver in his voice, the type of quaver when vocal chords are EOL (end of life). He seemed like a nice elderly gentleman, polite. He asked if I could help him find a computer.

GNU General 1.2 David Gil
He explained how his computer kept crashing, how it was "always getting viruses." He explained how he had spent hours, even days trying to get his computer working. As he explained some of the problems he had experienced, one of which was typing in a product code that was too long, in print too small, mistyped again and again, his voice began to quaver. He began to cry. Not much, but enough to show that this man had been brought to his knees in frustration.

We got him a computer and he now had the virus protection he needed built in. No more humiliation asking family members or friends to clean the viruses off his computer that he inadvertently clicked in a moment when his mind -- probably intelligent and sharp in his younger years -- was now occasionally not as sharp.

I wish there was a way to communicate to developers how important your work is. You bug fix to scratch an itch, for the simple pleasure of bug fixing, but the end result is a happy collection of code that directs the desktop that I got to place on order for an elderly gentleman and ZaReason's shipping people got to ship, all to help minimize difficulties and soften the last years of this man's life.

The man on the phone took time to tell me not just about his frustration but also about how important it was to him that he be able to send emails to his grandkids without it increasing his blood pressure and stress levels. For those supporting FOSS, especially those fine-tuning the code, your work is more important than you know.

Cory Doctorow made it clear I have the values part of "value and functionality" covered. The above story (and many others) are testament to the functionality of a Linux-specific computer and a company built to provide that computer.

Functionality covers many, many areas: this is just one, but it covers a wide enough range of functionality to cover a full spectrum of needs that our customers have, from government labs to small businesses to elderly seniors who need Linux machines.

Developers, you won't hear enough thank yous in your lifetime to compensate for what you have created, not even close, but here is a drop in the bucket:

Thank you! 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Removing Barriers for Linux Hardware

Since 2007 I've had to send emails saying: "Sorry, we do not ship to your country."

I have squirmed in my seat while typing that reply. Free and Open Source Software doesn't have borders. The hardware shouldn't either.

It's impressive that people seek out GNU/Linux hardware builders, but it's even more impressive when people email asking, "Here is my background ___. Could I set up a ZaReason shop in my area?" Antonio, Marcus, Tommi, Richard, and so many others, when you emailed us expressing that you wanted to set up shop, I looked you up. All of the people, approximately 125, who requested this were "viable prospects", smart people who could follow through.

Please know that typing the "no" reply was literally painful. It's a problem I have not been able to solve.

For the first five years of ZaReason's beginning, I asked people in Silicon Valley for advice on global expansion, seemed the obvious source of support. 

There's always a part of the conversation where I have to clarify my personal intentions: "I'm not in it for the money." 

At that moment, I lose their respect.

Occasionally, there's an unkind comment indicating I'm financially clueless. 

Actually I'm financially savvy. I'm just not ruled by it. I have different priorities.

Today, I had lunch with @kiwiseabreeze an experienced lawyer. I said, "I'm not in it for the money," and instead of giving me that look that says, "You hippy twit," instead her eyes glowed, she "got it"; no more trying to explain the impossible. What a breakthrough! For the first time, I was able to express my main objectives without being dismissed.


She respectfully heard me out, listened to some of my goals and objectives, mulled them over. It's the first time I've been able to get past that initial first step.

Result: I can see more potential options for The Next Step.

It looks like the wish I've had since 2006 might be possible. My wildest hope:

1. We put together "the packet" that allows ZaReason shops to be set up in other countries by people other than myself.

2. We send out word to those who want Linux hardware in their country. "Find two people who have the time and energy to set up a shop and contact us." 

3. At our Berkeley headquarters, Tony Lam, the CTO, has fully transitioned to doing the core of R&D. Iqbal Haider, the CFO, has fully transitioned to taking care of all ZaReason finance, making sure we're profitable, so Earl & I have been free (since April 2012) to set up other shops. Problem is there are only 2 of us and 20+ countries that could use Linux hardware asap.

Description of shops: 
Early days at Berkeley, CA shop, L-R, Earl, Vincent, Mark Terranova ("Hi Mark!"), Aaron Thomas, Kory
  1. 1,400-1,600 sq ft / 130-150 sq m of ground floor retail / office
  2. two salaried employees: Tech Lead and Office Manager
  3. access to both full-time and plenty of part-time employees, flexible employees, preferably walking distance to research university
  4. near a major port (preferable) to reduce shipping costs

Sidenote: When a company takes the "light & local" approach, it's usually called a franchise. A regular franchise costs five to six digits to get going and franchisees anticipate these fees, including licensing fees (shiver-cringe). 

But ZaReason won't be run by people who attend franchise fairs.

ZaReason will be run by people with deep experience in the Tech Sector.

* people who have already had careers programming, developing, managing and are more than qualified to run a ZaReason shop

* recent grads or people with untapped enthusiasm who recognise the value of building high-end hardware for Linux only 

* LUG groups, maybe previously inactive, coming back together to form a group who run the local shop, combining talent and expertise

Since ZaReason in US and NZ don't have "extra" funds, the people setting up ZaReason shops in different countries will cover the startup costs such as getting their country's site set up, getting initial inventory, legal docs to set up business, and similar costs.

For initial funds, maybe they'll self-fund, a Loan from Shareholders like we did, small outlays in incremental steps, $500 initial investment, a bit of bootstrapping and reinvesting profits. 

ZaReason US is doing alright, chugging along. ZaReason NZ, set up in a country of only 4 mil people, the size of just San Francisco, is doing alright also. NZ gets crummy service (or none) from most computer companies because the country is "too small". We figured if we could survive in NZ, we could survive anywhere. And NZ has done nothing but delight. (Thank you!)

We've had a bit of success and aren't proprietary / greedy. We just spent some time wandering while trying to figure out a non-corporate way to build a FOSS hardware company. As of four hours ago, our plan was for my husband and I to set up every shop ourselves (a spine-crushing amount of work). Even our 11 year old could see that our approach was insane: "Mom, that's like trying to write an entire game engine on your own. That's a freakin' waste of your time."

Ah, the wisdom and clarity of an 11 year old boy. Somehow the business advice of a kid making disgusting noises seems more sane than advice from SF business sharks.

I haven't been able to wrap my mind around the appropriate type of business structure while I've been surrounded by regular business people, talk of licensing, market segmentation, profit margins, and all sorts of fees that raise the cost of "the product".  (I refer to my laptop as "my trusted companion", not "the product".)

But NZ business people are different. Of course they want to make money so they can feed their kids and go surfing on weekends, but the thought of big profits is a "meh". I've been surrounded by the Kiwi business culture for five months now and my mind has finally opened up to new possibilities.


Ah-ha moment -- I couldn't conceive of the appropriate structure because the appropriate structure for building and distributing FOSS hardware involves essentially giving ZaReason away to the world at large. No one gives away a successful start-up. 


But FOSS is some sort of organic, wonderful thing that often reminds me that the human race does have some redeeming qualities.

SF Bay Area
In the afternoons I sometimes wander on Mount Victoria where scenes from The Hobbit were filmed. I've been loosening up to ideas: Maybe the people who've offered to set up Za shops will Kickstart it for their country (could run through Za US since Kickstarter is still US based). I don't have the energy to single-handed produce a Kickstarter video, but who am I to stop others from doing so? 

Maybe they'll raise the funds themselves. Maybe they'll bootstrap it like Earl & I have done, starting both ZaReason North America and ZaReason Australasia out of a house to keep overhead as close to $0 as possible. 

Maybe they'll pool together their own investor funds. 

Here's the kicker -- the core work, the R&D has already been done to get these machines out to people. The supply chain is in place. There are still hurdles, like keyboards in your country's layout, but we've been working on global expansion since 2007 and have structured ZaReason to handle this type of growth.

Over the last six years we have fine-tuned the structure for ZaReason. It is profitable. Our shop in NZ is in the black, barely, but it's an amazing start. 

Since 2007 we've received requests, "Can I set up a ZaReason shop in _____ (name of country)." We set up ZaReason's procedures so that it would adapt easily to the EU, South America, Scandinavia, and at my son's request, Iceland, at my daughter's request, France, and so many others. 

"I envision hundreds of ZaReason shops dotting the globe. Light, lean, local. Computers built and supported in-country."

We're pulling together a list of potential shop owners now and will do it on a mix of first-come, first-served + viability. Please email if interested. 

It's time to stop saying no.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Follow-up to "Pricing Hardware that Runs GNU/Linux"

Update: It took a few hours, but we found what we need. We found a team that can answer these questions and more. For those who helped, thanks for your input!


In Pricing Hardware that Runs GNU/Linux, I started what I hope will be a new practice at ZaReason -- giving rebates at the end of each accounting cycle, giving back any profits that occur during that time period.

For the last two weeks I have been cringing, literally cringing. How do I tell people that there won't be any rebates this cycle? It was break-even.

GNU Free Documentation License en:User:Amal
Enough computers went out the door to cover costs. Technically it should be counted as a loss since one cost is, "Donate 10% to FLOSS-support group." We donated about 2% plus the cost of a tablet, the ZaTab that will be given as a prize at NZOSA, New Zealand Open Source Awards.

Interesting note: In the last month ZaReason could have reasonably given $100,000 ($1.2m/yr) to various organizations who could have made great use of those funds: the FSF, SFC, EFF, Ada Initiative, Partimus, and numerous LinuxFests and volunteer-run conferences. These orgs need the funds to function. Think about it: ZaReason makes hardware, a tangible item that costs money. ZaReason could be and should be a part of the engine supporting these groups.

The ZaReason Australasia base has such minimal overhead, you would think there would have been significant profit for our first month. For the first month's accounting, I didn't include any start-up costs, none. There still isn't any payroll. But, a large part of our costs for the first few months will continue to be shipping, getting inventory in-country at a rate that doesn't require investment funds (smaller shipments more regularly). We're building inventory slowly, currently: "Get enough to cover the next week's orders." It takes at least a week for inventory to ship from US / Asia --> the base in NZ.

Waiting for hardware is horrid. If you doubt, talk to one of the people who have ordered an UltraLap 430 and have had to wait. Even better, ask Brenda Wallace (current one of the rulers of the Internet in NZ).

CC-SA Cathy Malmrose
Ask her how she feels about having to wait for her shiny new laptop to arrive. She has the patience of a goddess, but she wants it now for good reason. Every geek within earshot of this blog post will be able to empathize -- our hardware is crucial to the work we do and waiting is nearly intolerable.

So, help me with this solution? Put yourself in my shoes?

Public domain Medjaï
Or any shoes that fit? Just take a moment to walk with me, give this concept of "hardware for the community" some brainspace.

Perhaps I was using the wrong tool for the task?

Task = make ZaReason community-driven, give it that "we're all in this together" vibe.

Tool = REI style rebates to make sure there's no profit motive + give back to community

Perhaps the tool should be:

Tool = community ownership of some type with profits going to a mix of organizations that support FLOSS.

Public domain
The Spark: Last week we had lunch with a brilliant thinker named Daniel Spector. I walked away with a dozen quotable quotes and a brain overflowing with sparky ideas. The most interesting was the concept of possibly making ZaReason an employee-run cooperative.

But to do any type of business shift, I need a business person to help. I need The Eben Moglen of Global Business Development, someone who understands why FLOSS is important, who won't waste my time on a profit-for-CEOs type of business structure.

I'm no Utopian, but I do think corporate business structure is, as my 11 year old son would say, "Freakin' unfair." I don't see any reason why ZaReason can't run differently than regular US corporations. I just need to figure out how.

If you haven't met or hear Eben Moglen speak, the top three traits we need are:
CC-Attribution, Share Alike 2.0 Palosirkka

1. Brilliant, well educated, deep experience.

2. Practical, gets the job done,

3. Currently retired, leaving the legacy of accumulated experience

I need a business person to come in and say, "Here's what a co-op would look like in the tech hardware industry and here's how you access the talent to get it done."

I need someone who understands the concept of limited time and won't dump a task list on my over-full plate, someone who knows how to build engines, in this case an engine for FLOSS as a whole.

Note that I haven't given up the 100 days promise. The first week of September, I'll review costs for August and hopefully there will be surplus. Who knows? ZaReason has seen all types of fluctuation in the past and there's nothing I would love more than to issue monetary "thank yous" to those people who believed in us enough from the start.

CC-A-SA 3.0 unported Fir0002
Please comment or email me if you know of someone who could be the Eben Moglen of Global Business Development for ZaReason.

Help me find my way through this particularly dense forest of corporate structure? So I can better build what's needed for hardware that supports FLOSS?

As always, thank you.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why does it matter? Keyboards for FOSS

1. having actions and thoughts in alignment
2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished
3. a state of accuracy that gives strength

In 2007 we began shipping laptops and desktops to people who wanted Linux-specific computers. One day I had a --FREEZE-- moment.

Packaging a laptop to be shipped, as I began to close the lid I saw... the logo of an operating system we don't use. It was plain as day on the Start key.

It shocked me. How could we, as a Linux / FOSS supporter, in good conscience, ship out a laptop with only the insides, the hidden part, being Free and Open Source Goodness while the outside was obviously something else?

We found a manufacturer in the US who could do the custom keys for us and took a deep sigh of relief. Whew. Our laptops now had an Ubuntu key. (Later a Tux key, then later, after the key manufacturer went out of business, Ubuntu sticker / Tux sticker.)

A few months later I realized the less obvious -- every desktop we shipped out would end up with a keyboard that's easily available. It would end up with a similar lack of congruity / lack of integrity.
CC-Attribution/ShareAlike Wikisoft


After all the hard work we do to make Free and Open Source, all the late nights and unpaid grunt work and we end up with someone else's logo on it? What a waste.

We did R&D on an Ubuntu keyboard and ordered 100 of them. They were most popular with the Italians. The keyboards were $25 and shipping was $28, so they paid more for shipping than for the keyboard itself but they ordered them anyway and often sent their Thanks. It was a gratifying project.

After the Ubuntu keyboards sold out, people kept asking for Linux-branded keyboards. We found a manufacturer who would do them, but made a mistake. We ordered a small run of them without doing testing. We figured, “What could be so difficult about making a custom keyboard?” That was the first and last time we made a mistake like that.

The key responsiveness wasn't right. We stopped selling them. If coders were putting so much effort into writing clean code, the least we could do is make high quality hardware to match.
Keyboard in backpack, CC-SA, Earl Malmrose

After that we were a bit nervous about quality. Earl, our R&D lead began working with OEMs to build a quality keyboard. He rejected all of them except one, a keyboard that he hauled around in his backpack to differenet conferences for more than two years. If the keyboard could handle being carried in a backpack (being jolted, twisted, dropped, stepped on, spilled on) then it could pass our quality test.

But, the OEM's minimum run is 1,000. They would prefer we do 10,000 but 1,000 is plenty for an initial run.

We figured that it was probably likely we could find 1,000 people in the world who loved Linux enough to want to have a keyboard that showed it. But how to fund it?
ZaReason works backwards from most companies -- instead of asking, "how much can we charge" like most companies do, when we are working on a new product we base the price on, "How little do we have to charge in order to do the project properly and support it long-term?"

It's "how little" vs "how much", polar opposites. It's the FOSS way of approaching the exchange of tangible goods. So, funding a run of 1,000 keyboards wasn't in the budget because there was no budget, no surplus.

Whenever ZaReason does have surplus (usually by accident, by having a product that's more popular than we anticipated) we either use that surplus for R&D to create products like the ZaTab, a rooted tablet with an open bootloader, or we give the excess away.

Glyn Moody's book, excellent read
I asked around about the funding issue and several really smart people including Glyn Moody of Rebel Code fame and others encouraged us to use Kickstarter.

But that would best be covered in a Part 2 post tomorrow when my eyes aren't so bleary.

Teaser: I will be asking for photos and videos clip contributions. If you have some eye candy that shows FOSS goodness we might be able to use it for the Kickstarter video. We also need a few photos of truly dirty keyboards.

For more details check in again tomorrow! Thanks!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Tablet Challenge

Prototype Netbook CC-SA Cathy Malmrose
How much do you love your laptop / tablet / main computing device?

Right now I'm snuggled up with my laptop, purposefully blocking the fan to create warmth. My laptop is a netbook prototype that I've beat up in many durability tests. This little slab of machinery is core, vital, crucial, central to my life. (Photo is me trying to sleep on airport floor during a too-long layover. Feel free to steal my travel bag with passport & money but my laptop is protected in my arms during sleep. Not rational, I know.)

I am a bit nervous to announce that I will be doing a Tablet Challenge, giving up my laptop for a month and using a tablet exclusively. In the morning I will tuck my laptop away in a safe spot and if I need something off it that's not already in the cloud, I'll have my sponsor, er, my husband get it for me.

It's the first time in a long time that I haven't been able to swap the hard drive to make the switch to a new machine.

CC - Share Alike, by André Karwath aka Aka
I am nervous because any type of change is scary. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Sapolsky, a Stanford biologist explains the physiological reaction to stress. Letting go of my laptop will be stressful. I would be kidding myself to say that changing from a lifetime of using little laptops to an entirely different device would be easy.

Why am I doing it?

1. Because I can't list something on our website or that I haven't used extensively myself (or had a family member use, such as my teenager using the Chimera). I need to see it in action. I need to rely on it in order to accurately judge it's value to people who ask about it.

2. Because I need to help bridge the gap between the ultra geeky R&D people and the people I meet who can't find the On button. No offense to people who can't find the On button. There's no shame in having spent your life focusing on areas other than technology. It would be a boring world if we were all geeks. To clarify: Ultra-geeks understand the value of a rooted, open bootloader tablet. My job is to communicate why that's important to people who don't know what an open bootloader is.

ZaTab on Fridge, CC-Share Alike Hadley Rich
3. Because I've met so many smart people who love their tablets so much that their eyes light up when they talk about them.

4. If I know the tablet on a personal level, I can better advise schools how to implement their use in classrooms or libraries how to use it as easy-install catalog machines on the end of bookshelves throughout libraries.

And without personally using it, I surely won't be able to figure out what Hadley Rich of NiceGear was doing when he mounted his ZaTab on his refrigerator. Just seeing that picture made me want to go cook something yummy.

During this challenge, I will be doing videos about the tablet: the good, the bad, and the inbetween. When we have exhausted topics about functionality, we can start doing side-by-side testing with tablets and other devices.

The goal -- what type of machine helps me lead a full, rich life? What reduces my workload and increases enjoyment?

Isn't that what technology is all about?

ZaTab prepped for The Tablet Challenge, Creative Commons Share Alike, Cathy Malmrose

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Casualties Mounting in the UEFI's Secure Boot Drama

Colosseum, Rome CC-Share-Alike Cathy Malmrose
What a Greek tragedy: two people who both need each other, cross paths, desperate to find each other, yet both fail having missed each other in transit, dying a tragic, needless death.

It's happening now, in 2012, a modern Greek tragedy in the tech sector.

The GNU/Linux distros are world-class software coded to power free and open in every way.

The GNU/Linux-specific hardware company ZaReason was built with a distribution chain that goes from OEM factories in China to Joe Smith's house in Ohio.

We need you; you need us. 

"We need you," has been widely recognized by the public: a company like ours would not exist without the GNU/Linux distros.

"You need us," is a concept that is slowly being recognized.
Now that UEFI's SecureBoot is here, people are beginning to see that GNU/Linux distros need a computer builder at OEM level who can keep things open, keep our collective foot in the door at the factories.

Games, CC-Share-Alike Cathy Malmrose
Here's our situation: We run an extremely tight ship. There is 0 profit.* If we ever did have profit, we would donate to support the EFF, FSF, Software Freedom Conservancy, LinuxFests, GNOME Foundation, various conferences, the works. Hopefully someday there will be but most months it's a stretch to make payroll. We would grow much more quickly in far more countries if we could get the word out there louder, faster, similar to what Cory Doctorow just posted on BoingBoing: "ZaReason, a computer company with freedom built in"

"ZaReason's mission isn't just to make free/open hardware: it's to ensure that there is always a free-as-in-free-speech option for your computing needs. This is a vital role, and they deserve kudos for stepping up to it... they have my endorsement and gratitude for keeping freedom alive, and putting ethics ahead of profit."

It's a Greek tragedy and I would like to rewrite the script right now. I would like to rewrite it to say, "It looked like UEFI's SecureBoot was going to be the norm, all computers built post-2012 were required to run __ (MSFT + whoever signs). But, there were a few small hardware builders who had been building GNU/Linux hardware for years. At the last minute the community got behind them and were able to keep their foot in the door. Now GNU/Linux hardware is known as the superior operating system, the code at the core of the infrastructure of our world, plus the software that runs computers of good people all over the globe."

Symbiotic Brothers CC-Share-Alike Cathy Malmrose
I'd prefer a story with a happy ending.

But to be honest I don't know how to motivate people. Devs have supported us in force over the years, but it has been a happy accident, not something we did on purpose.

Now that UEFI's SecureBoot is no longer avoidable, we need to put more muscle behind it. I have no idea how to do that other than to raise a flag for help. If any of you have any great ideas for how to avert this particular Greek tragedy, please speak up. Distros are weighing their options. No more time for delay.



* If you would like to see the 0 profit, we will gladly open our books to a CPA who could do an external audit and publicly verify that we are running Not For Profit. Send any CPA referrals to: Three requirements:
1. Pro bono. We can't afford to hire one. The CPA will see why once s/he reviews our books.
2. NDA. There is no example (that I could find) of a company that thrived after opening it's books to the public. I'd love to be as transparent as clean air, but I won't sacrifice our ability to build hardware to do so.
3. CPA is a decent human being, someone with a history of supporting FOSS.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Kickstarting & Seedrs-ing GNU/Linux-specific hardware

Now that the edgy, confrontational but must-be-said post is out (see Tourniquet) it's time to go back to the regularly scheduled programming.

CC-Share Alike, Worm That Turned
The Inner Workings of Linux Hardware blog's purpose is to shine light on the build process, on how we work with OEMs, where we source our supplies, and why any of it matters.

It's about building, creation, production, freedom.

Occasionally this blog will have a hard-hitting piece, but mostly it is about the good stuff.


Three random-ish intersections: 

1.Right before I fell asleep at 3 am last night I saw the BoingBoing post by Cory Doctorow, a well-known UK figure: ZaReason: a company with free built in

2. The Geek Atlas by John Graham-Cumming* is one of my 10 most treasured books. A good portion of the book covers just the UK.

3. Yesterday Glynn Moody, a well-known UK writer (who has insights I appreciate) mentioned Seedrs

The UK has been looking pretty great lately.


Seedrs: ZaReason would like to do a "Launch in UK" project through Seedrs and see if there's enough support. To post the project properly we need:

1. a pro bono accountant / CPA to review budget, and

2. a pro bono lawyer for advice and several documents

(Note we have been looking for a way to give the community ownership over ZaReason, but can't figure out how. Would appreciate advice from a business person who could help us navigate.)

Both accountant & lawyer are needed to help prep the Seedrs project for ZaReason UK initially and long-term (not pro bono long-term). Everything else can be done by our existing ZaReason teams.

This is the last barrier stopping ZaReason from launching in the UK.

If you know of someone who may consider assisting, please have them contact me: cathy at zareason dot com 

Everything else is in place. From seed funding to opening is approx three months, 12 weeks total, though different countries have some regulations that require extra time. Stock between US / Australasia / UK (some of EU?) will vary slightly, but the core products, the laptops and tablet will be available at all locations. They are the Big Run items. 

CC-Share Alike, Cathy Malmrose
Aside: Wondering about that cat? Speaking symbolically, we don't want to work with any fat cat bankers and start ZaReason UK on a loan or other type of debt.

Seedrs structure = yes. How regular corporations set up = no.

For years, people have been asking ZaReason to Kickstart larger runs of hardware instead of running out of stock so often.

Good idea.


Kickstart: We're going to start with a product that has been most requested over the years: the Tux keyboard. We did an Ubuntu keyboard years ago. I just googled "Ubuntu keyboard". It is shockingly still the first hit.
CC-Share Alike, ZaReason

It was not well publicized, but people loved it! My absolute favorite was shipping it to Italy. The keyboard cost $25. Shipping cost $28. They paid more for shipping than for the keyboard and they kept buying them. I marvelled at each order: "Another one to Italy; two more to Italy." (It made me want to move to Italy.) We did a run of only 100 and ran out long before demand ran out. It took nearly a year before people stopped asking about it.

We would still have the Ubuntu keyboard today if it was not for the manufacturer of the Ubuntu key going out of business. They were a US company. We looked for other factories that could help with the keys but did not have much luck.

Note in case you are wondering about the Sticker vs Key-printed-properly issue:

* When we do runs of laptops such as the Teo Pro at the OEM level, a full production run just for us, we can dictate the details. When we do smaller quantities, we have less leverage and often have to accept keyboard pads they have already created, thus the Ubuntu or Tux sticker. There is no licensing fee. The Windows logo is simply an ingenious marketing strategy that allows free advertising on all PCs manufactured (unless we do our own larger runs).


You may still be wondering: "Why a keyboard when what we really need are ultrathin netbooks?" @chris_bloke  in particular, you may really be wondering since you (and many others) have been hearing, "Soon, soon," for years. But I will answer by quoting something you told me earlier this week: "Patience, grasshopper."

Most Kickstarts are in the $25 range. We're starting safe to see if we can do the Kickstart process; then we'll do that 11.6" 3rd gen Intel Core i7 hyperthreaded quad-core processor, 16 GB RAM, USB 3.0. Nvidia 650M graphics with 5 sec boot time and style that makes people coo, smile, the works.


So, people in the UK: If you want rooted, open bootloader computers in the UK, please put on your Sherlock Holmes hat (just kidding!) and help me find the support this particular GNU/Linux-specific company needs.

And maybe someday we will all Kickstart a ThinkPad competitor that raises Cory Doctorow's eyebrows a bit. 

Either way, Thanks.


People have seen many posts from me lately, much buzz. The ZaReason teams are alive and kicking, but personally I will be going back underground for a week to work on several Za projects. Help me find leads to Accountant + Lawyer listed above? Other than that, see you in a week.


Mom & Dad, I know you read my blog. Please skip this post. Thanks. --Cathy


Note: This post assumes you know what UEFI and Secure Boot are and have followed GNU/Linux's progress over the years. It assumes you have perspective. It is not a fluff piece. It is an open letter to freedom fighters at the core.

If you have built your own desktop at some point in your life and you care about end user rights, please read.

When UEFI's Secure Boot is implemented at OEM level, all new PCs purchased (with the intent of loading your favorite distro) will have Secure Boot.

Yes, you can disable it. But "disabling" something that's "secure" makes you bad. Thieves disable security. (On a primal level, people crave security; this is a constant.)

FLOSS is being rebranded as "not secure". The branding will stick the same way that the Win key branded PC=Windows worldwide.

FLOSS will be benevolent only for those who have a history with it. Your legitimacy and ease-of-use is being striped. Incoming new users will decrease as disabling Secure Boot evolves to be increasingly more difficult. Your peers will age and disappear, the precursor to extinction.

Your legacy evaporates every time you use a PC or Mac* and others see you using it, accepting it and condoning it. Future generations will wonder what it is you were trying to accomplish, not just because end user rights are a thing of the past, but because your words and actions were incongruent. There is a lack of integrity between what you say (you value GNU/Linux and FLOSS) and what you use (PC or Mac).

I am not an idealist and I have no vendetta, no flag to wave, no pissing contest to win. What I do have is an unfortunate penchant to see multiple outcomes (think: chess, think: hyperactive executive function in the frontal lobe). Ask anyone who knows me, I'm not smart, I just have an annoying tendency to visually chart multiple outcomes and give them weight due to likelihood of occurrence based on factors x, y, and z. Ask the people who have to live with me; it's annoying, but occasionally handy.

After looking at as many factors as I can currently see from my vantage point working with factories in China, devs throughout the world, and customers in North America and now Australasia, this will continue to play out like a Greek tragedy unless we purposefully shift the storyline. Now.

Secure Boot makes sense to Ubuntu and Fedora teams. We can respect their choices and we also respect the end user. ZaReason does not require you to use any specific distro in particular. ZaReason builds and supplies rooted, open bootloader machines that have been tested to run the most mature distros.

Fedora is doing the best they can. They are making tough decisions. They are good people who have been faced with their worst nightmare -- a lack of control over how their software gets loaded on the computers of nice new people who want to use it. They had two choices:

1. Become "too difficult" to new users, slow death by suffocation, or

2. Try to survive the upcoming shift, but in the process, trust MSFT. In an FSF article by John Sullivan: "Users wishing to run in a Secure Boot environment will have to trust Microsoft."

Since the beginning of GNU/Linux in the 1980-1990s up till now, we have all had the luxury of tinkering, wiping and loading whatever distro we liked.
This gave you the ability to flip the bird to proprietary corporations.

See below? This is what Secure Boot does, as it is currently being implemented.
Creative Commons - Attribution 2.0 Generic Neeta Lind

Solution: Don't give them your hand. Stop buying Windows machines, damn it.

I honestly don't care whether you get your next laptop from ZaReason or any other GNU/Linux-specific builder. There are only a few of us around and we are small. As far as I know ZaReason is the only one working directly with OEMs, doing our own runs of hardware. Yes, we may not have the options you want. Yes, we may not be shipping in your country. But yes, we need your support. We need to be shipping 200,000 of each computer instead of 2,000. For example, the Strata 7330 we just launched has serious muscle at a competitive price.

But here's the part that blows my mind -- currently a freedom fighter may look at the Strata model and say, "Oh, I really wanted __ feature." It's a minor feature, low on his list, but since there is a plethora of available models at the store and since he doesn't put much value on GNU/Linux-specific hardware (to do would seem "fanatic"), a feature that is #18 on his list wins out. Yikes.

At ZaReason our days are long and without a shiny marketing budget our computers do not get the credit they deserve. Hearing from a freedom fighter that he didn't find GNU/Linux-specific hardware compelling made me want to cut my own middle finger off, give up, forget it. As I type, my husband is working on R&D for the tablet and has just taken a moment to rest his head on the desk in despair. He needs a larger dev team. Now he's banging his head on the desk.

Why do we bother? Because GNU/Linux and FLOSS are worth a little head banging. We love how free and open source software and the people in the community have improved our lives. Our original switch to Ubuntu caused a quantitative improvement in quality of life. ZaReason is in it's 6th year now and even though the hardware business is brutal, even though it has pushed all of us to our limits, I wouldn't change the last six years.

GNU/Linux and FLOSS are worth it.


*Apple introduced UEFI. There isn't anything Windows has done that Apple hasn't tried to do better. Think Apple won't implement a similar Secure Boot? Please don't be naive. Thanks.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Lighting Idaho on Fire --> GNU/Linux on Fire


Love [FLOSS] is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable. 

Bruce Lee

At conferences it is fun to see the different attitudes towards FLOSS, the different motivations of people who are:
     1. energetic, rushed, enthusiast, do-something-now
     2. mellow, calm, but rock solid in their beliefs regarding intellectual property
     3. pragmatic, do whatever works
     4. idealistic, don't compromise

Ever wonder about the subtext of people's choices?

Today, Independence Day (for US), I got a bit of a glimpse into why people approach FLOSS the way they do. The realisation is buried in the summer of 1997, the summer we nearly lit Idaho on fire.
Released into the public domain by its author, BigDogGraphics (we love you) 
We lived in Washington state (MSFT and Boeing country). In WA there are many Indian reservations. Fireworks are not regulated on the reservations, ie you can get crazy-powerful fireworks alongside the road in WA starting in mid-June. Having two little boys who loved blowing things up, we got a small arsenal of fireworks and planned a great holiday.

But, at the last minute, we decided to drive to a family reunion in Idaho. We crossed state border naively unaware that we were carrying illegal fireworks across state lines.

Skyshow Adelaide CC-SA Alex Sims
There were 50+ people at the family reunion. Dinner. Chatting. Large beautiful new home out in the country, surrounded by brush, farm land and an unusually dry forest. Even the small fireworks were banned. Some kids had sparklers and a few people lit fireworks (the legal kind, but still banned). We figured we'd contribute and got our OP (overpowered) gear out of the trunk.

The first one we lit tipped over sideways after the first shot and then shot five more fire rockets into the dry Idaho brush. Instant fire.  

Green Jello, CC-SA begojohnson
People in their bathrobes and pyjamas ran to get water. A guy with a hose pulled it as far as he could but only had a piddely little stream of water, meters from the fire. One woman ran from the house with a large bowl of Jello (not kidding) and dumped that on a patch of fire. Everyone stomped and squelched it. There was a 20 minute span of sheer terror then a sleepless night knowing that hidden embers could spark it again.

I shook for days and still don't like fireworks. 

But I do love fire. I love the fire in people's eyes when they talk about the things they can do when they have access to the code. I love that look of passion when they do something they love (when the volunteer part of the brain is functioning at expense of the money-earning side, those two sides are mutually exclusive, read Sway.) 

I even love that hot, fierce flame that erupts when people disagree. Why else would we have given a presentation at the Southern California Linux Expo on "RetroGNOME: Bringing back the glory days of Ubuntu pre-Unity"? (Yes, it did spark a delightful little fire in the conference room. So fun!) But at the core, I am a burning coal. I like safe, slow, sustaining fire, long-term.
What did I learn about FLOSS, GNU/Linux and the world at large? Two things: 

1. For people who have a solid, stable "deep-burning and unquenchable" (Bruce Lee, we love you) belief in FLOSS, they can be relied on for support. For example, I recently had a few insights about how to handle UEFI / SecureBoot at OEM level (submitted to LCA's CFP, fingers crossed). I floated a few of the ideas to people at Catalyst at their Beer o'Clock (casual weekly get-together). There was a minor disconnect, took me by surprise, and I didn't understand until now. In that instance I was a flame trying to tell a coal to burn. It's already burning. Duh. Catalyst can be relied on for the long-haul.

A quotable quote by @piawaugh lately:
"Exactly! Awesomeness is it's own self generating energy source!"

Coals don't need flames as much as flames need a constant energy source. The coals in FLOSS are our absolute most valuable resource. They are the sustaining warmth that will keep things going when the air turns chill and the world seems more scary than usual.

2. For people who are fresh to FLOSS, the flame is often "hot and fierce". There is an energy and enthusiasm unparallelled. (Only once have I met someone who was both a coal and a flame: @einfeldt, Christian Einfeldt who has both intensity and longevity.)

Earth Erde CC-Share Alike Heikenwaelder
Typically the flame (at least the one Bruce Lee is referring to) is "light and flickering". They need an energy source to keep going. Stormy Peters often talks about this energy source, the sustainability of motivation to contribute as a volunteer. Personally, I don't have a decade of FLOSS under me yet and I need to keep in mind how easily I can be blown out. 

@piawaugh summed it up:
"It always saddens me when I find awesome people who have burnt out. Take care of yourselves people! I need your help to change the world ;)"

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Pricing the Hardware that Runs GNU/Linux

W.Rebel Creative Commons Attribution

GNU/Linux belongs inside an Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, or Holden but needs to be at the price point of a VW Bug.

We are doing the final testing on and have one final beastly bug: pricing.

Pricing in the US and Canada is fairly easy. We look at our costs, then look at competitors, then set it as low as we possibly can and still make payroll.

In the US and Canada I have mass suppliers and mass competition to help make pricing easy. We need to stay in business and we need to keep it as low as possible to highlight the free and open aspect of what we do. Simple. 

Pricing in Australasia is far more difficult. Prices can cover the map. The two problems we face with pricing in Australasia are:
 Diego.toranzos Creative Commons Share Alike

1. Fewer points of comparison and incoming costs we don't fully understand yet.

2. The BF, Bleed Factor. We can't bump prices down to "let's make payroll this month" because we have no payroll. The Australasia base is being started by a team of five people, all volunteer. We are building and shipping out of large rental home on Mount Victoria in Wellington. It's a personal residence, no overhead. We need to invest in stock ahead of time, but other than that, no overhead.

The temptation to price ourselves into the ground is quite alluring. FOSS is free. We dearly want the hardware to be as affordable as possible because:

1. It allows more people access to high-end (not refurb!) computers that are built to run many GNU/Linux distros flawlessly. It's the same thing as the car you own. GNU/Linux belongs inside an Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, or Holden but needs to be at the price point of a VW Bug.

2. It highlights the, "Hey, I didn't have to pay for the OS license," point. We're building for free and open here.

So, since I would prefer to be a philanthropist than a business person, and that's a dangerous attitude for someone who decides pricing, I am considering putting two failsafes in place so that, a year from now, ZaReason is still alive and kicking in Australasia. Two steps:

1. Price things as close to normal as possible.

2. At the end of each month, add up profits and losses, cutting a "check" to all customers in that month when there is surplus. It's similar to what REI* does (outdoor adventure gear).

Notes: We will be using Paypal for payment processing (accepts all credit cards / debit cards) so we can easily send customers a payment. The process is simple and sustainable.
snowflake on

For example, if next week you purchased the Blue Snowflake, a high-quality but affordable sound recording device with a USB plug (I love mine) and there was a profit at the end of the month, we would cut you a check (Send Money back to you through Paypal) as a type of co-op rebate. For small items, the rebates would be small; for larger items like high-end desktops, laptops, or servers, it might be a nice chunk of change. It's not guaranteed; it's just something we can do to make sure everyone comes at this from a community standpoint.

We can always adjust pricing as we go, but that doesn't help the person who bought something last month and now it's cheaper. Doing a group refund / rebate / whatever-a-business-person-would-call-it seems to make sense.

The first 100 days is the initiation period for any project. During that first 100 days we will be doing the refund / rebate, hopefully balancing out the prices and getting ZaReason on a strong footing in the area. ("Footing" is a pun. Read on...)

* A month ago I got a $83 rebate check from REI. I was blissfully happy because my boy needed shoes. I could have gotten cheapy shoes from Walmart, but instead went to REI and got a pair of Hi-Tec hiking boots for my boy. Every time I look at those shoes I am grateful that REI isn't just giving back to the world at large, but is giving back directly to me. That check was a big deal for me personally. So, I'm thinking that this idea might turn into a permanent good thing. If NZ and AU work well and show the rest of the world they can see the value behind hardware that's optimized for GNU/Linux then who knows, maybe the rebate at the end of the month will become a habit. Here's to hoping.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Are Our Brains Leaking?

Vincent van Gogh: In der Provence,Public domain (lost by fire)

I experience a moment of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. 

-Vincent Van Gogh

Editor's note: I posted this in the wee AM through sleepy eyes and like all things done at those hours, I was worried later that maybe I had done or said the wrong thing. What delight to find a confirmation of sorts posted on ComputerWorld this morning: Silicon Valley's Top Threat Is China

First response: "Orly?" Of course SV is at China's mercy. Is this news? This is exactly why ZaReason is now open to investors. We snagged out first one last week and will be open to investors on an open scale through Kickstart soon.

Per the ComputerWorld article, I don't believe the center of innovation will shift quickly. It is next to impossible to recreate the vibe of Silicon Valley, such a complex, multi-faceted buzz, but SV is very much at China's mercy and it's too proud to recognise that blaringly loud weakness.

Analogy: If you don't grow any food yourselves, you depend on the grocery store. China is nearly the only grocery store in town.

Looks like ComputerWorld had a moment of clarity.


NZ could be, would be, should be a land of intense technological innovation due to two colliding factors:
Clarity + Creativity

1. The fresh open air, pure food chain, respect for a person's need for rest and a strong get-out-in-the-fresh-air culture all combine for clear thought. Take it from someone who has not lived in NZ -- when you pump your body full of steroid-laden meat, toxin-packed energy drinks, and food dyes that are bizarrely unnatural, it does hurt your brain's ability to think clearly.

2. Being separated from other countries often makes it harder to get supplies. In Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, a Boston professor tells about her Maori husband's integration into US culture. When they needed a doorbell, he made one out of wire, sticks, and other random objects, things he found on the ground. Common sense. Ingenuity. Creativity: using the earth as your source code.

Clarity + creativity is the elixir of the Gods. So why am I not seeing god-level technology here?

Instead I'm seeing

New Zealand Brain Drain Worst in World

Brain Drain Claims Third of New Zealand's PhDs

If I was a Computer Science professor at a NZ university I would be rightfully ticked off, with an attitude of, "After all I've invested educating these students, they just high-tail it out of here as soon as we give them a degree?" The professors I have met so far have been far more gracious.

Creative Commons, Jorge Royan, on Wikimedia
Perhaps one of ZaReason's best advocates will be CS professors? Who knows. The professors I contacted at Victoria University have bowled me over with the depth and breadth of their experience with GNU/Linux. It bodes well.

Wondering: Is academia motivated to retain graduates in country, to benefit NZ? Likely. Is the Ministry of Economic Development interested in building a tech reputation for NZ? I hope so. Did I hear some of you laugh at the thought of NZ being a tech leader? Pfft.

Yes, NZ gets new technology -- iTunes, movies, TV shows -- last, but that's actually a +1 in the Clarity and Creativity departments. On the surface, being "behind" in technology may prove to be NZ's saving grace.

Could it be that the real brain drain is occurring outside NZ where these technologies are plentiful? 

I don't have enough to support this theory, but it has been dancing around the edges of thought as I look at how various countries are handling IP and their overall infrastructure. The greatest minds tend to go where they are free to think and express and build the end product of their thoughts. The drain is channelled by how we handle the off-flow of our brains, the end product such as a really cool device that was the end result of intensely brilliant thinking on all levels: engineering, industrial design, people who get the product to market, etc.

The latest ad for Massey university expresses the success of their graduates including one who worked on the iPhone team. It is the same approach as Stanford University in California: "Look at the success of our graduates." Stanford touts that it educated the founders of Google, HP, Nike, Sun Microsystems, Paypal, Yahoo, and Time Warner. Note these are all big corporations: big but not necessarily good.

During the last two months as I established ZaReason in NZ, talking with the various organisations that regulate business along with fellow business owners, I am 100% convinced that NZ has managed to create, possibly by accident, a business environment that fosters "good" in its many forms. It is an effortless good. It just is. There is competition without greed; success without dominance; striving without strain. NZ may have problems, but it's hidden gem is that it has a intangible, unregulated, nearly indescribable "good business" culture at its core.

Setting up a computer company in Silicon Valley wasn't too terribly innovative, but it made sense as Step #1. Setting up a computer company in a small, isolated, often forgotten little country, building it to support Australasia is an honest coupe. Australian techies, help prove this point? Let's show that the Little Guy can succeed in a better, kinder, and even more practical way than what corporations are currently doing globally. We don't need to squash, compete, kill each other. We can just make cool products.

As Mike Forbes said this morning: @mikeforbes, "What a f***ing wonderful day out there. Go make stuff and be excellent to each other."


That's frighteningly beautiful clarity.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rockin' the Earthquake -- The Lockdown at OEM Level -- And Za in NZ Reason #4

If the previous reasons weren't bizarre enough for you, here's one that may throw you for a loop: One of the reasons we chose NZ as the next country for ZaReason is because of NZ's persistent earthquakes.

Background: When I was a little girl, Mount St. Helens in Washington state, US erupted. One of the boys in my class, a sweet red-headed kid with an ear-to-ear grin, was killed when his dad took him and his brother hunting the weekend the volcano blew. (photo: public domain, US Geological Survey)

See, for weeks the news had been warning that "an earthquake is imminent". The roads to St. Helens all had barriers in place to keep people from going up the mountain. The mountain had been evacuated but after a few too many warnings, people stopped believing it would blow. People simply went around the barriers. None of the forest rangers were stupid enough to go up the mountain to save people who were earning Darwin Awards (awards given to people who remove themselves from the gene pool in unusual ways).

The day St. Helens blew I stood on the back porch of my home watching the big fluffy plume, dancing in the warm light gray flakes as they fell. I didn't understand what was happening, but revelled in Mother Nature's power.

My school friend wasn't in school on Monday. The teacher announced, "Andy's dead..." then fell into a listless depression.

My brother told me that Andy's body had been burned alive in the volcano's heat, "Some of the ashes you've been stepping in are probably bits of his body." Imagine my little-girl-freak-out when I imagined that the warm light gray snow I had danced in was burned up parts of my friend's body.

I learned something from that volcano.

Don't get lazy with predictions.

People have been predicting the potential loss of end user rights and endangered FLOSS freedoms for ages, predicting the lockdown of computers at an OEM level and guess what? We all have been lazy, wiping computers and installing a favorite distro -- going around the barriers -- instead of finding a way to build hardware specifically for GNU/Linux.

It's a tough situation, I know.


This post has been sitting in my Drafts, complete but not Published for months. It was only when Cory Doctorow used the words, "This is a tremor before an earthquake..."

that I realized that it's worth the risk of offending people who prefer their wiped-and-loaded machines to GNU/Linux-specific machines. Though I disagree with Doctorow on several points, we do agree on the earthquake bit. I'm finally ok with doing a very unladylike thing, shouting, "It's 'sploding!" I am asking people to take a closer look at their computers, even the small details such as that Start key / Home key. Take a closer look at the machine that runs the code you helped write.

"It's 'sploading" means "Please recognize how important it is that we build and support GNU/Linux-specific hardware, the physical, tangible safehouse for FLOSS."

I've been saying it quietly for years: Sooner or later (when the volcano blows) people may recognize that we needed to build GNU/Linux hardware support much sooner. Maybe we will find out we needed to be able to build our own components, our own motherboards even. It's fully possible to do so, but it needs muscle. And time.

This post is me putting up a single little barrier on the mountain, a simple warning that it might not be a good idea to go for the thrill of wiping & loading, er, hunting this upcoming weekend, er, next few years.