Thursday, February 14, 2008

Loving my "Stallman" machine: The Asus Eee PC

One of the consequences of being in Mexico throughout the last part of December and all of January was missing the launch of the stunning Asus sub-notebook(the EeePC) According to some yahoo stories going back to December it seems that one of these machines was selling every 6 seconds at one point as it became the hottest must have for Christmas gadget in North America.

We caught up with it in Toronto at the end of January whilst teaching a Saturday class for Mount St Vincent University. One of the participants in the program, Mario, brought one along to class. It was the first we'd heard of it. But it quickly became an obsession -- one that was realized yesterday. There is a new version slated for around April or May, and we'll look forward to seeing that as well. Mario says he prefers the Cloudbook equivalent, but the Asus is sublime and I love it. There may be degrees of excellence, but I'm a simple soul, and excellent is good enough for now.

Some background. Years ago I got an HP Jornada because I wanted something that could keep me computing on the run that did not involve lugging a laptop everywhere. With its tiny keyboard the Jornada was just a bit too small for this klutz to key quickly on. But it had the look and feel of a tiny laptop, and took a modem. Between keying standard docs, accessing the Web and doing email it was fantastic. When HP moved to the iPaq style I lamented the passing of the Jornada, but went to the palm and got reasonably fluent with the iPaq. With its wireless capacity and bluetooth it was a brilliant accompaniment to a laptop. When the iPod batteries ran out on the long flights I could haul another 3 hours of music out of the iPaq. For skype calls on the run in wireless environments it was fantastic.

Until I saw the Eee PC I was beyond gung ho for the release of the new iPaq Handheld Enterprise machine -- just out -- with a big 4inch screen. The Windows Vista OS filled me with doubts, of course, but I needed an up to date pocket PC OS, and this looked the best option.

However, there were two other considerations. With my brutal travel regime I had always craved a machine that did not require its own bag but, rather, that would just go into my homeless bag with the iPods and that could do all the work I needed a machine to do for a week or more at a time. Also, like anyone else, I guess, I was getting beyond fed up with the directions (and other trappings) of proprietary software. We vowed we would never ever get Vista, having seen it close up. This, for the first time, began pushing me toward a Mac, but there is more than a ton of proprietary ugly stuff around that as well. Over the past year I just increasingly kept thinking Linux.

Enter the Asus. Linux-based, no moving parts, and all pre-packaged with open source software permanently updatable on the Asus server off an icon in Settings. With 3 USB ports it takes a light and transportable external HDD. It also takes SD memory cards and any size of thumb drive you want. It weights slightly more than a feather. Has a powerful wireless capacity, takes an ethernet cable (or phone line), has a built in web cam, and an elegant functions-based interface. It has a port for connecting to a data projector. It is absolutely intuitive, and the keyboard is perfectly viable. You can't drop a ROM or DVD into it, of course, but if you can carry your music and videos by other means you are away laughing. And it is a perfect size for those economy cabin tray tables. The built-in microphone and pre-set settings for the mike and speakers delivered perfect Skype quality without touching a thing -- to both landline and computer options. At US$399.

I like value for money, no question. But this is more than that by a long way. This is my Stallman machine, embedded deep in principles of open source/free software and Web 2.0. For sure Asus and others are making bucks off it, but I can feel an integrity through the mere touch of the thing that makes me think that maybe we are getting a glimpse of a future where things may be a little less proprietary and a little more user friendly. This is the kind of technology that will doubtless encourage lots of tinkering. While it is open to being loaded with XP the question is "why bother?". With a full suite of Open Office applications on board, why not just work on getting the most out of them? Selling in the millions and, seemingly, with a bright future ahead, this is a mass way into using open source software which, in turn, for the tinkerers, becomes an incentive to contribute to further developing open source software and to embracing the ethos of people like Richard Stallman and Lawrence Lessig.

Of course, this is not a laptop replacement -- not yet. But one of the joys lying ahead will involve seeing just which of the things I routinely do can't and can't be done on this basic beauty, with the help of an EHDD. And the thought of being able to be on the road for a week or more without needing to lug a laptop around feels pretty liberating right now.

Hello Collin,

The only reason I like the Everex is that it allows the use of XP that many people are comfortable with. I love the ASUS but many people are afraid of Linux.
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