The secret weapon of the HP Touchpad: Linux

August 31, 2011 7 comments

The Touchpad has been discontinued by HP when the company has changed its business strategy recently (getting rid of the whole PC business arm).

A lot of people think that this was an absolutely unnecessary and sorely mistaken step, especially in light of the possible revival of the Touchpad after the PC business has been separated. Not that the Touchpad is a very competitive device in its current form. It has many glaring design mistakes by HP like missing ports (HDMI out, USB host), no expandable storage …etc but it also has many good features like its high-quality IPS-screen, Beats audio system and over-clockable processor.

WebOS also has a huge disadvantage compared to iOS and Android: very few applications, and this seems to be quite a show-stopper in the current situation (a chicken-and-egg problem).

How could HP make this product more successful without resorting to souch brutal fire-sales like the one we have recently seen?

I believe, that HP should exploit one of the big strengths of the core of WebOS: Linux.

WebOS is built on the Linux kernel and it already uses a set of Linux desktop technologies on top of it (Gstreamer, PulseAudio…etc). In a particular sense, it is a heavily customized Linux distribution (distro), like Ubuntu, which is  purposefully made incompatible with the grand armada of Linux desktop applications in order to allow applications which use strictly WebOS-only APIs.

The development strategy of allowing WebOS-only applications makes sense, since it ensures a consistent level of user experience (e.g.: all applications are properly touch-oriented) and makes it easy to enhance the foundations of WebOS without breaking applications. However, it locks HP into an uphill battle which seems impossible to win from the current situation.

Therefore, I suggest a change of development strategy, which concurrently allows significantly enhancing the number of applications available for WebOS and makes the system appealing for different use-cases.

The main component of the new strategy would be to allow running full-desktop Linux applications on the Touchpad in a so-called Desktop Mode. This Desktop Mode would automatically activate when WebOS senses a keyboard or mouse attached to the system (only Bluetooth in case of the Touchpad).

Desktop Mode would make it possible to use the TouchPad as a Linux netbook while keeping the touch oriented interface for the tablet-mode. Best of both worlds.

Desktop Mode would be a completely standard, lightweight Linux desktop  (e.g: XFCE). and would run the traditional Linux desktop applications and also display the WebOS applications in separate windows. This work environment would not be very different from the Webtop interface of the Motorola Atrix but it would not be such a limited environment. It would be a full-blown, configurable Linux desktop with all of its advantages.

Ideally, you should be able to easily switch back and forth between the Desktop Mode and the Card Interface of WebOS (possibly with a dedicated hw button on new models).

Since Desktop Mode would run every imaginable Linux desktop applications (including Java, Python and even Mono ones), it would make the TouchPad an extremely versatile mobile device. It would be more welcome in the enterprise than its competitors.

The hardware of the TouchPad (dual-core processor clocked at 1.7 Ghz and 1GB RAM) should be absolutely able to handle both Desktop Mode and the Card Interface applications concurrently. Obviously, desktop heavyweights like OpenOffice would open and run slower, but I imagine they would be fast enough to be usable. HP could ship Desktop Mode with lightweight applications (Abiword, Gnumeric…etc) while allowing the easy installation of heavy programs (at your own peril).

The best option for the Desktop Mode would be a chrooted Ubuntu instance because that would mean a very powerful application environment with a lot of readily installable aplications in its repositories (appstore). The WebOS Internals team already ship the X-Server for WebOS, so a well-working Linux desktop is absolutely doable on top of WebOS.

HP could also sell a netbook-kit as an accessory to the Touchbook, which would include a case with a built-in stand and a built-in keyboard. When the TouchPad is in the case and oriented for netbook-mode, the Desktop Mode would automatically activate.

Of course, this solution would not fully compensate the inherent weaknesses of the Touchpad but it would make it  more appealing for those people who consider netbooks as usable devices and expect their tablet to be as capable as their predecessors in mobility.

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How I would make the Toshiba AC100 successful

May 9, 2011 6 comments

The AC100 is an early attempt from Toshiba to create an ARM based netbook (a smartbook) with Nvidia’s successful Tegra2 chipset.

Although, the AC100 looks like proper hardware design, it became only mildly successful. Some of the reasons may have to do with the primary operating system, Android (see my earlier article about this) but even more can be attributed to the design decisions Toshiba made.

Since these machines are now available in my home country (Hungary) at quite attractive price points (~$250 USD, some people seem to be trying to get rid of it soon after purchase) I can’t help bumping into it all the time. Since I am a gadget fan, I always have my hand trembling seeing those prices and I need to cool myself down before doing some impulse-buy, I regret later.

What could make me click on the “Buy” button?

More memory

First of all, 1-2GB of RAM instead of the measly 512MB the AC100 hosts. Why the heck tried Toshiba sell a netbook with 512MB of RAM when ALL of the Atom N450 netbooks seemed to come with 1-2 GB at that time? This amount of RAM would allow to slap Ubuntu onto the machine and not worry about running out of memory when loading up OpenOffice. Ubuntu has been demonstrated on the AC100 and even looks snappy. (see this site dedicated to Ubuntu on the AC100). Toshiba could easily put 2GB of RAM into the machine without major cost-increase.

Desktop OS and/or Android

Putting 1-2GB of RAM into the AC100 would open the gate for using a proper, netbook-oriented desktop OS which can take advantage of the form-factor. They should use Ubuntu, since that could be fixed up on this hardware in no time (especially if they purchase some consultancy from Canonical).

I don’t think that Android needs to stay on the machine but if Toshiba still thinks it is such a good idea for any user-group, they could make the AC100 dual-boot, or even better, run both OSes in parallel (2GB of RAM would make this absolutely possible). Android would be the light-and-easy OS on the device but the user could any time switch to a full Ubuntu desktop with an Android launcher icon and start using OpenOffice or other decent desktop software. The paravirtualization developed by B-labs would be an instant solution for this problem and would future proof the machine for a possible Windows8 scenario later.

More battery

The 8 hour runtime of the AC100 is decent enough but more battery-time is always welcome. The enclosure has a LOT of free/empty space under the keyboard due to the ultra-compact nature of Tegra2 and its supporting circuitry. Toshiba should again take advantage of the form-factor and add one or more extra battery docking bays under the keyboard which could extend the runtime to 16-24 hours. (Admittedly, they would make the unit weight much more but since these batteries would be optional, this decision would be up to the user. A 24-hour runtime with a 3-battery arrangement would make the AC100 extremely appealing for a large-set of users. It would be acceptable that the batteries are charged in series (so the recharge process is lengthier) so that Toshiba doesn’t have to switch to a more expensive power supply. (Although the power supply issue is probably not a serious cost factor).

What else

Of course, there would be a lot of things to be improved (more USB ports, higher-resolution display…etc) but I tried to draw up things which require smaller redesign so that an improved version could be implemented faster.

I believe the AC100 line could be made really successful and Toshiba should take steps to make this happen.

Why I root for MeeGo instead of Android

April 7, 2011 13 comments

MeeGo is a flavor of Linux, with a similar purpose as Android in the mobile computing space (being a versatile, open-source OS for phones, tablets and other mobile devices).

I root for MeeGo because it has a lot of advantages over Android and iOS:

  • More open than Android, the source code repositories can be read by anyone, and anyone can contribute at least patches. Any device manufacturer can take the source code any time and try to slap MeeGo onto its device.
  • Has a lot of optimizations for both ARM and x86 (Intel & Nokia cooperation), so it is relatively easy to deploy it on both hardware architecture. (Important for manufacturers.)
  • It uses a more standard Linux kernel than Android so it can follow the progress of the Linux kernel much more closely than Android (continuously better device support…etc).
  • It is a real, full-blown Linux system. The user interface – while nicely optimized for touch –  is based on standard X-Windows technology, so EVERY current Linux software can run on it without major porting work (e.g. Firefox, Open/LibreOffice, Thunderbird). Tablet optimized and non-tablet-optimized software can run next to each other. Of course you need a keyboard and mouse for the non-tablet apps.
  • Imagine the Motorola Atrix: Due to the previous point, you wouldn’t need a separate Webtop environment for desktop applications, one, sophisticated shell can handle all applications concurrently. (in the case of the Atrix, the currently shipping Webtop environment is dumbed-down, static, non-extendable Linux desktop which integrates poorly with the concurrently running Android apps)
  • Among other technologies, it can run full-blown Java apps as well, not only Flash, like Android. This could be a strong differentiation in an enterprise environment.
  • It is absolutely imaginable to run Android apps in the MeeGo environment  if the developers decide to support it (Dalvik is just another VM like the Java VM and dual/quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 with 1GB RAM can run as many VMs as you want). This is going to happen on the BlackBerry Playbook, there is no reason for not implementing it in MeeGo.

I believe Nokia has made a HUGE mistake by choosing Microsoft WP7 for its primary platform. MeeGo has a much better chance of becoming a real, multi-vendor OS solution that seamlessly replaces Symbian. It would give as much differentiation for Nokia as WP7 does and it would fit better with the current customer base of Nokia (a lot of which will never buy a WP7 phone).

Categories: Uncategorized

Hypersolar concentrator glass for solar collectors

February 28, 2011 3 comments

The recently introduced Hypersolar concentrator cover/glass is intended to reduce the cost of solar PV panels by allowing the use of 1/3 – 1/4 of the solar cells per panel. Since the solar cell is the most expensive component of the PV panel, this – in theory – allows a significant cost reduction / watt of solar photovoltaic technology.

This technology may have similarly big impact on solar collector technology in terms of cost and system complexity.

Solar collectors produce heat from solar rays by heating a heat-transfer liquid (solar hot-water collector) or air (solar air collector). Solar collector systems are much cheaper than solar PV systems but are still fairly complicated and expensive.

For example, liquid-transfer collectors require piping, pumps and complex control mechanisms (solar controller computer which tells when pumps operate…etc) for transferring the collected heat to the storage. Air-collectors also need fans, fairly large holes on walls/roof, control mechanism…etc.

With the Hypersolar concentrator, one could build a system like this:

  • The solar panel has a very simple construction, it only concentrates light (ideally the full spectrum) into optical cables. The Hypersolar glass is directly connected to the optical cables, there is no need for insulation in the panel.
  • Piping is replaced by optical cables which (in this system) transfer all collected photons to a central heat storage (a large water tank). The water tank is equipped with a high-performance photon/heat converter (black metal absorber and a simple pump to move the hot water away from the photon/heatsink). The converter should be a very simple metallic device with good thermal engineering.
  • From this point everything is the same as a normal solar-hot-water system which provides hot water for heating and sanitary purposes. (piping the hot water from the storage to bathrooms, from storage to the floor-heating pipes or to fan-coil radiators…etc).

In larger systems the optical cable must be protected against accidental damage since it will transfer energy at high rates.

Naturally, more complex systems can also be built. For example several optical cables can be used and each of them can go to a specific room and connect into a hot-air producing photon sink (some sort of fan-coil radiator unit). This would make heat distribution easier and eliminate the need for a larger central heat storage. Naturally, the radiator units in the room need to be some sort of hybrid  since they need to produce heat at night as well (e.g. work with electricity at night).

Categories: alternative energy

Microsoft pushing for 16-core Atom CPUs: something to do with Linux?

January 28, 2011 15 comments

According to this article, Microsoft is pestering Intel to produce low-power Atom-based, x86 processors for server machines.

I am wondering why they would force this direction. Do they know server requirements better than Intel? Why do they think that low-power x86 server chips are so important?

I believe the answer comes from the following factors:

  • Power efficiency is becoming more and more important in the server room. Intel processors (Microsoft’s home turf) have less than stellar watt/performance efficiency but they are the best in raw performance / cores.
  • ARM provides the best watt/performance in general computing (far far better than Intel x86) and ARM is seemingly scalable to the server performance range (with multiple cores and coming to 28nm high-performance production processes)
  • Microsoft doesn’t have a server operating system presence on the ARM architecture. Linux on the other hand runs on ARM, has optimized distributions for ARM SOCs.
  • ARM licensees are actively pursuing server chips (Nvidia, Nufront…etc)

If 4-16 core ARM server processors appear in the near future, servers built with them would have superior watt/performance ratios so they may quickly gain acceptance.

These systems would be perfectly served by Linux distributions (Red Hat, Ubuntu, Suse) and Microsoft could not offer anything for them. Linux is already the strongest player in the datacenter and this would grow its market share considerably while reducing the market-share of Windows simultaniously.

Even if Microsoft manages to create a stable Win8 server OS solution with all the required additional Windows sw (database systems, application servers…etc) on ARM in 2-3 years, it will be pretty much too late. They will need to play catch-up with Linux. The Microsoft Win8 solution will have to sell for peanuts to be in the game which would make it very much unprofitable in the short-medium run. Moreover, as x86 server market share goes down, their x86 Windows Server OS profits also go down.

All in all: If ARM processors appear in the market in the near future, Microsoft may face a steep uphill battle in the datacenter. If x86 based Atom server can slow down the onslaught of ARM servers, Microsoft may gain enough time to come up with a Win8/ARM server solution and avoid serious loss of server market-share.

Categories: linux, ubuntu

Nvidia Tegra3 launch imminent. Intel, you did this to yourself.

January 21, 2011 4 comments

Reading about the likely launch of Tegra3 at Mobile World Congress 2011 and seeing this video, one cannot help wondering how big a mistake Intel made when denied Atom hardware interfaces from Nvidia some time ago. Doing that, it practically forced Nvidia to abandon mobile-x86 solutions and pour all of its resources into Tegra/ARM development.

Nvidia has recently announced its Project Denver effort which also shows how seriously the graphics company wants to transform into an all-out computer technology company shipping mobile, desktop and server processors as well not only graphics solutions.

As a result, Intel will have to face not only AMD in the desktop/server segment but a big-name ARM technologist as well. (And several smaller ones like Nufront)

Tegra3 is not well known yet, but some guesses can be made:

  • Quad-core Cortex-A9 symmetric multi processing for generic application code execution
  • Likely at least 1Ghz top, possible up to 1.5 Ghz, dynamic frequency scaling and individual core-power-off
  • Geforce 8 or 9 level graphics core, likely with high-profile 1080p playback and encoding
  • Support for Linux and Android
  • Possibly produced on a <40nm process (GlobalFoundries 28nm anyone?)

If Nvidia can produce this on the GlobalFoundries 28nm process (or similar), we can be quite certain that the new SOC will still be viable for smartphones and will be an extremely appealing solution for tablets and Motorola Atrix-like phone/netbook/tablet modular solutions.

It will make Moorestown Atoms a very-very hard sell for Intel in the mobile phone and tablet space since the computing-power advantage of Moorestown is gone and Tegra3 will be much more efficient (being an all-out ARM solution). Android-centered OEMs will most likely go with ARM anyway and if there is a big-name producer like Nvidia with a powerful solution for their premium products, they will certainly pick that up instead of the Intel gear.

And this is only the mobile space. When Project Denver from Nvidia and Nufront start selling ARM based server SOCs, Intel will have to fight a battle in the datacenter which was absolutely home-turf so far.

All of this may not have happened at all (or would have happened years later, giving Moorestown a chance) if Intel had not chosen to deny Nvidia the hardware interfaces for building Ion2. They switched a huge threat and possible cut-throat competition in every computing segment for a very short-term gain in one segment.

Was it worth it Intel?

Motorola Atrix vs the Always Innovating Smart Book

January 15, 2011 1 comment

It is not an overstatement that the Motorola Atrix smartphone was one of the bright stars of CES 2011. An often-mentioned, breakthrough feature of the  Atrix is its modularity, namely that it can be placed into a netbook dock which gives it work-time (and battery recharge) and a desktop-like work environment (Linux based).

It is worth mentioning that this concept is not brand new and that a smaller company called Always Innovating (AI) has a similar, even more modular product: the Smart Book.

The main difference between the two products is that the computing core of the Smart Book is only a MID, not a real mobile phone like the Atrix.

The advantages of the Atrix over the Smart Book (SB):

  • The computing core of the Atrix is a real, usable mobile phone, not only a MID (IP phone as AI calls it) as with the SB. The Atrix phone is a high-end Android phone with beautiful, high-res screen (comparable to the iPhone4).
  • The computing core of the Atrix has 1GB of RAM and a powerful Tegra2 (dual-core Cortex A9) instead of the last gen, slow Cortex-A8 SOC and only 512Mb RAM in the Smart Book.
  • Computing core of the Atrix has a built-in 3G modem (with strong HSUPA and HSDPA) while the SB has only wifi radio and requires you to use an external 3G modem to connect to the internet when on-the-go.

The advantages of the Smart Book (SB) over the Atrix:

  • Much more modular. The SB has tablet jacket AND keyboard/netbook dock for the tablet jacket, while the Atrix only has a netbook jacket for the phone. The SB’s tablet jacket has a capacitive touch interface
  • The SB has real a real desktop operating system (Ubuntu) running when in desktop mode while the the Atrix has only Webtop (that only looks like a full blown desktop but it is only a Splashtop-like quick-linux OS, so it is limited to a selection of programs and is not easy to extend with apps).
  • The SB has 2 inner USB ports for replaceable 3G modem or storage key which can always ship safely within the netbook dock (no protrusions)
  • The SB’s netbook dock can be used as an independent bluetooth keyboard
  • The SB’s tablet screen can be used as a secondary display of a desktop (DisplayLink)
  • The SB has a dockable (into the talet) HDMI to USB adapter (DisplayLink)

In order to be the perfect companion, the Atrix needs to:

  • Increase its modularity by separating the netbook dock into a tablet and a keyboard stand or at least release a tablet dock as well
  • Upgrade the Webtop desktop environment to a real, powerful desktop Linux (aka Ubuntu 10.04) or at least ensure that Ubuntu can also be used in place of Webtop. It is important that the user be able to switch between Android and Ubuntu real time

The Smart Book could be a worthy contender to the Atrix by:

  • Upgrading the computing core to a dual-core OMAP4 with 1GB of speedy RAM
  • The computing core needs to be a real-word Android mobile phone with a strong HSPA data modem

I believe Motorola is in a better position to make the Atrix a one-stop computing solution but I also root for Always Innovating to make the Smart Book a successful product.

Both products clearly mark the future: modular, mobile computing for everyone.