GooBuntu: playground arguments against RPM-based distributions

Full disclosure: I’ve been a contributor to the Fedora Project for several years and am nominally the maintainer of Fedora’s RPM Guide, which will probably never actually be released.

Earlier this week, ZDNet reported on Google’s use of Ubuntu on desktops. While I’m sure they chose a distro based on a variety of of factors and the final choice was the one that best met their business needs, the article could stand to include some additional detail. It appears that all RPM-based distributions were immediately disqualified because “packages and apt (Debian’s basic software package programs) are light-years ahead of RPM (Red Hat and SUSE’s default package management system.)”

I have some philosophical disagreements with how Ubuntu’s parent company operates, but I’m a big proponent of the “use what works for you” philosophy. I have no objection to Google using Ubuntu if that’s what works for them. What I do object to is basing the decision on non-reason.

The first problem is that the argument always seems to be apt vs. RPM, but this argument is a non-starter. apt and RPM aren’t at the same layer. Comparing apt and yum is more reasonable. Both tools have advantages and disadvantages. Comparisons can be made using various metrics, but there is no objective measure of “better”, because fitness for use varies by use case. Similarly, RPM and .deb have overlapping-but-not-identical strengths. The philosophy of building packages differs, and some people prefer one method over the other. I’m weakly-rooted enough to find both philosophies compelling.

I’d be willing to grant that RPM, and the tools around it, have improved over the past few years. Even if the RPM ecosystem was formerly terrible, I’d have expected that the man making the decision at Google would base it on something more substantive than what amounts to a religious argument.

Trouble with Dell support

I love Dell’s higher ed support. Their consumer-grade support, though, leaves something to be desired. A few years ago, we bought an Inspiron Mini 9 for my wife and it’s recently been having a few problems. First, the AC power adapter wouldn’t stay plugged in, so we had it replaced. Then the battery wasn’t holding a charge, so we had that replaced, too. Most recently, the laptop would shut off if the AC adapter was wiggled, even though the battery (according to the OS) showed a full charge.

I tried the easy fixes first. All software packages were already up-to-date, so I thought I’d try the newest BIOS. Except that Dell no longer provides the DOS-based BIOS packages, only the weird Windows installation program. The community provides some Linux support that Dell refuses to, but there’s no BIOS repository for the lpia architecture. I was able to update the BIOS by extracting the package in a Windows VM and then finding a few utilities to throw onto a USB stick. Sadly, it was all for naught, so I surrendered and contacted Dell support.

They sent a new motherboard and a technician. When the technician saw the motherboard, he was dismayed. On the Inspiron Mini 9, the motherboard does not contain the AC adapter port. So he sent the part back and asked for the correct part to be sent. The new part was again a motherboard. He called and spoke to a support rep who insisted the right part had been sent. Finally, he gave up and said I should just send it to the repair depot. He was clearly frustrated, but he wasn’t making any progress.

I was tired and cranky by that point, so I decided to get on the Dell support chat. Over the course of the next hour, I very patiently tried to explain to the person I was chatting with that the motherboard is not the correct part. Apparently, it got escalated up a rung or two and resulted in a conference call between the service rep, the technician, and several managers. On this call, they came to the conclusion that the motherboard was not the part I needed. There’s a small cable that connects the AC adapter to the motherboard that isn’t listed in any service manual or parts list. As it turns out, that’s shipped with the plastic base. So a few days later, the technician was again at the house with a new power cable…and also another motherboard.

In the two months since, the laptop has worked well, but I’m really put off by the whole experience. Why sell a product that you have no intention of actually supporting (see also: Nokia)? But if you have a Mini 9 and you have power problems and it doesn’t take three trips to get it fixed…you’re welcome.


How helpful is helpful enough?

I have a confession: I am a compulsive favor-doer. When someone asks for my help, I have a hard time saying “no”. Since there’s only so much Ben to go around, this gives me a tendency to over-commit.  I recognize this as a problem, but I can’t help myself.  It’s in my nature to be helpful.

So how helpful should I be?  My wife works at the county library, and last week a gentleman was checking out a book about Linux.  In the course of small talk it came up that he’s trying to dual-boot Ubuntu and Windows 7.  Angie mentioned that I run Linux at home and he wrote down his phone number and e-mail address for her to give to me.  I’m not mad at her for it, she hasn’t committed me to anything, but it got me wondering.

My initial reaction was to e-mail the guy and introduce myself.  After all, I’m a nice guy and that’s what I do.  Then I realized that this would probably make me his go-to support.  I don’t mind helping people, but an open-ended commitment isn’t exactly what I’m in the market for.  I already do a fair bit of free work for strangers.  I answer questions in the #fedora IRC room, on and on Serverfault.  Additionally, I write this blog, and I write documentation for the Fedora Project.  Maybe I don’t do as much as others, but I’m definitely contributing back to the community.

So maybe, I thought, I should set a rate and charge him for help.  That seems like too much effort, though. I’m not really interested in doing enough consulting/contract work to make it worth the trouble of filing the appropriate paperwork.  Besides, I have such a hard time asking for a reward for being nice.

Where does that leave me then?  I have no idea.  In the meantime, I’ve gone with the head-in-sand approach.  I’ll just pretend like this never happened.  Perhaps someday I’ll be able to solve this quandary.

What a day! Also, the Dell Mini 9

March 14th is quite a day.  It’s Albert Einstein’s birthday, it’s Pi Day, it’s another holiday that perhaps you should just search Urban Dictionary for, and it’s the 15th anniversary of the 1.0 release of the Linux kernel.

Speaking of Linux, it’s been months since we basically got rid of Windows in my  house.  We still have a Windows XP computer, but it hasn’t been booted in months.  On Wednesday, we added another Linux machine to the mix.  We bought a Dell Mini 9 for my wife.  The Mini was on sale one-day for $200 base, so we decided to snap one up.  The cheapest model ships with Ubuntu 8.04.  I’m used to RedHat/Fedora, so I was a little concerned that the setup would be a bit of a curve, but other than configuring the wireless network, Angie was able to get it as set up as she needed by the time I got home.

So what do I think of the Mini?  It seems to be a pretty solid little netbook.  I don’t feel like I’m going to break it every time I touch it, which I was a bit concerned about.  The keyboard is, understandably, really tiny.  I’m a clumsy typist anyway, so I had some problems, but it seems like Angie has gotten used to it.

The Mini uses a custom repository, probably to keep the disk footprint to a minimum (the base hard drive is a 8GB solid-state drive), but also because the processor isn’t an i386.  uname identifies the Intel Atom processor as ‘lpia’.  This means that pre-built binary packages won’t work by default.  If you use the “–force-architecture” argument to dpkg, it should install.  That worked for Skype, at least, although I’m told that you won’t be able to do an automated uninstall later.  The built-in webcam, speakers, and microphone all worked well.

So after 4 days, the Mini has been a worthy investment so far.  I just wish we had purchased a second one for me to play with. 🙂