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.