LJ Archive

The Ultimate Linux Handheld

Doc Searls

Jim Thompson

Issue #148, August 2006

A geek tool for your shirt pocket.

We liked the Nokia 770 back when we reviewed it for the February 2006 issue. Since then, the 770 has received generally good reviews from Linux geeks and bad ones from the mainstream press. Rob Pergaro in the Washington Post says it “does little, and not very well”. Steven Mannes in Forbes says it comes with “lots of built-in frustration”. CNET calls it the “worst-rated product that CNET readers love” and knocks its lack of Ethernet, slow load times and sub-cellular battery life.

Well, we still like it. Here's why:

  1. It is a legitimate and useful handheld Linux computer (2.6 kernel, Debian package management, GNOME UI), yet small and light enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Consider the possibilities.

  2. Linux desktop applications are straightforward to port. For example, running GPSdrive and gpsd on the 770 is a simple matter of loading three packages. With a Bluetooth GPS providing your current location, you can own a “look ma, no wires!” navigation solution for your car or bike that is easy to take with you when you park.

  3. It is Net-native out of the box, with a solid browser, excellent Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) and Internet radio stream support.

  4. The 770's 4.3" touchscreen display, with its 800x480, 225 pixels/inch resolution and 16 bits per pixel color depth, is beautiful.

  5. The ARM9-based, 250MHz TI OMAP 1710 CPU at the core of the device provides plenty of CPU crunch while conserving battery power.

  6. Storage is easily upgradable. For less than $70 US, we fattened the memory of our 770 with a 1GB SanDisk RS-MMC card.

  7. It has an active development community (maemo.org) that keeps enlarging its portfolio of capabilities.

  8. It's backed by a giant company that can mainstream the unit through deals with the likes of Linksys and Discovery.com (see the on-line Resources).

We are also intrigued with the Pepper Pad, a 2.3 pound “two-handheld” Linux (MontaVista) computer with a 20GB hard drive, an infrared port (so you can use it as a remote control), a QWERTY keyboard (split to the left and right of the screen, so you can hold the pad with two hands and type with your thumbs—it's easier than you might think) and stereo speakers, among other features. In TUX (our sister publication), David Hitrys had kind things to say about the Pepper Pad (see Resources).

We favor the Nokia 770, however, because it fits cleanly inside a new niche—the pocket-sized computer—while the Pepper Pad operates at a price point (just over $800 US) where there already are piles of Linux-ready notebooks with much heftier hardware. Still, the Pepper Pad is a New Thing, and we hope it succeeds—just as we hope all wide-open Linux-based devices succeed.

Success won't come easy, as long as the manufacturers continue to promote these things as “consumer” devices while they still lack a full portfolio of familiar and easy-to-use applications for nontechnical users. That kind of marketing guarantees negative reviews from mainstream media. The Nokia 770, for example, has the form factor of a PDA and comes from a company whose name is synonymous with cell phone. Yet it is neither. Instead, it is a computer. As a “consumer” computer, it suffers for not being Windows and for failing to meet the average user's expectations of a portable Windows or Palm device.

For the price of a Nokia 770, you can get an HP iPAQ or a Palm Treo. Both work as PDA/cell phones and run lots of ready applications. But, both also trap the user in Microsoft's or Palm's silos (and carrier partners' silos as well). The 770 doesn't do that. It's about as open as anything you'll ever see in a handheld computer from a major manufacturer—especially a manufacturer accustomed to working through supply chains that meet customers inside the walled gardens of cell-phone carriers.

For now and the near future, the Nokia 770 is a geek tool. That is why we continue to recommend it and to salute Nokia for making and supporting it. It's also why we urge the hackers among our readers to take a look at the maemo development platform roadmap (see Resources) and to help move things along. At the time of this writing (mid-May 2006), the Telepathy IM/VoIP Integration framework is in the works. So is the Farsight audio/video conferencing framework. On the to-do list are UI development tools such as Gazpacho, and enablement for languages (Python and Java) other than C for writing UI applications. Nokia also has sponsored significant improvements to the Matchbox window manager. And, with the announced 2.0 software feature set, the 770 should be even more attractive to those looking for a way to put Linux in their pockets. Of course, this isn't the first time a major handheld device manufacturer has attempted to leverage the Open Source Development community on behalf of a new mass-market product. Sharp did exactly that with the Zaurus, which still has an active development community, even though the device was discontinued in 2004.

Now would be a good time for the Zaurus folks to get behind the Nokia 770, and for everybody else with time and imagination to jump on board. With a critical mass of open applications, the market will invite other large hardware players to jump into the game and defeat the walled-garden model that continues to afflict the whole cell-phone industry and to threaten the computer industry as well. (For evidence of the latter, look no further than the iPod or the Windows Media Player.)

Open Linux-based hardware products like the Nokia 770 and the Pepper Pad are disadvantaged in the short run, but advantaged in the long. Although they lack the finished gloss associated with consumer electronics, their advantage is the same unfinished nature that the mainstream reviewers find so annoying. As platforms, these hardware devices are far more open and adaptable than their proprietary competitors. And, in the long run, evolution favors the most adaptable species.

Resources for this article: /article/9070.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.

Jim Thompson is a veteran Linux (and UNIX) hacker who has long been one of the leading figures in wireless networking.

LJ Archive