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Monday, October 10 2011

Consumers Don't Own Computers "Designed for Windows 8", and They Go to Landfills Earlier (Side Effects of "Trusted Computing")

Some computer manufacturers will force you
to "trust" Windows 8 only, disallowing you to
do usb-booting or cdrom-booting of other operating systems Microsoft Windows 8 alpha is released and downloadable. But no, I am not recommending it. Nor am I denouncing it in favor of GNU/Linux (well, not in this article anyway). What you should be aware of and concerned about as a consumer is those machines labeled as "Designed for Windows 8". Much more so if you care about the environmental and humanitarian problems caused by e-wastes, for these machines do end up much earlier as e-wastes than the ordinary machines manufactured now.

Machines labeled as "Designed for Windows 8" have to support UEFI。 UEFI is said to have many nice features, which I am not knowledgeable about and will not discuss. But I can assure you that one of those features is a downright hoax, scam, and lie. The "secure boot" feature in UEFI is claimed to make your computer more secure by disallowing intrusions from untrusted sources. This and certain other features in UEFI are important elements of Trusted Computing, a mechanism advocated by Microsoft and other big IT companies. The claim is that booting a computer from an untrusted source (such as a tux usb key which has applications in tourism, education, environment preservation, LOHAS, and ethics) is a security threat and should be avoided.

There is just one tiny problem: it's not you, the consumer, who gets to decide who is to trust. The propaganda claims that the consumers are too dumb (well, ok, actually phrased in a much more polite way.) to make their own decisions about whom to trust. ("Microsoft or Chao-Kuei?") Software booting from an untrusted source may contain rootkit, for example, which would gain absolute control of your computer. The real, unsaid intention, however, is to prevent consumers from using alternative players and readers on alternative operating systems to circumvent the human-right infringing and infamous Digital Rights Management. If the big IT companies let you decide whom to trust, then they cannot trust you as a DRM-abiding consumer. With the secure booting mechanism in UEFI, the IT companies finally can trust that you will not be able to ask your computer to do what is best in your interest, for example exercising your fair use right and other rights requested in the digital consumer bill of right.

Ironically, history shows that one of the most famous rootkit invasions was not performed by individual bloggers and GNU/Linux lovers like me who have to build reader trust by behaving well and telling truth, but rather by big companies who can repeatedly abuse consumers and yet successfully keep them buying. In 2005, Sony BMG invaded consumer computers. The lovely music CD that consumers buy play nicely in CD players or DVD players. But it hijacks your Windows if you play it on a Windows computer. This creepy behavior was exposed on the Internet and caused protests. Sony BMG's Global Digital Business President responded, "Most people, I think, don't even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?" But the most interesting part is the reactions of Microsoft and Anti-virus companies. What would you do if you were Microsoft and if Sony invaded your customers' computer? I would definitely provide security update and then also advise against buying these CD's or even sue Sony, depending on how nice I wanted to be with Sony. But Microsoft did nothing for several months. Nor did most big-name anti-virus companies. These are the companies who take your money, vouch to "make your computer more secure", and assure you that you can "trust" them.

Even more ironical is the ensuing fairuse4wm event in 2006, in which Microsoft behaved exactly the opposite. The newly upgraded windows media player employed DRM measures and suddenly deprived users of their backup right. Someone with the ID of viodentia wrote and shared on the Internet a piece of software called fairuse4wm to restore the users fair use rights. This time Microsoft swiftly produced "security updates" to disable fairuse4wm within 10 days. Viodentia updated fairuse4wm to circumvent Microsoft's updates, and Microsoft produced further security updates to disable it, ... and so on. Whom do Microsoft's "security updates" serve and which of viodentia and Microsoft is more trust-worthy?

From DRM to Trusted Computing to DMCA anti-circumvention History has shown that some of the big IT companies unitedly decided not to trust you. So who would you, consumer, trust? Oh, I am sorry. I should not address this question to you, for it is not you who get to choose whom to trust. I should ask computer manufacturers who enforce trusted computing for you. And for sure we all know that Microsoft is the only party for any consumer to place trust in -- according to the manufacturers. "We decide for you whom to trust." That's the real meaning of trusted computing. And the "secure boot" feature of UEFI, which is "Designed for Windows 8", is one of its pieces. To learn more about trusted computing, you can read the EFF article. My article "DRM and Other Forces Overriding the Three Laws of Robotics" ( English, French, Spanish), my paper "1984 in the Making: Stealthy Invasion of Consumer Rights and Privacy by ICT Corporations" and my novelette in Chinese explain the relationship among DRM, Trusted Computing, and DMCA. It's also summarized in the picture to the right. Search for "windows 8 linux" for recent controversy about Microsoft enforcing UEFI on manufacturers.

To be more precise, it is not true that secure boot precludes other operating systems in principle. If the hardware manufacturer is willing to certify some minor OS, this lucky minor OS can also boot from a "designed for windows 8" computer. Still, the decision is for the hardware manufacture, not you, to make. Finally, some manufacturers may decide to allow the buyers to optionally disable the secure boot feature of UEFI. It is this last category of future computers that we will recommend everyone to buy -- not only because you would want to be a wise consumer but also because it prevents worsening of the environmental and humanitarian problems caused by e-wastes.

As explained in the e-waste part of the censored 4-part iPhone game "phone story", the discarded electronics either end up in landfills or exported to developing countries for "recycling", which in fact employ methods that are harmful to both human health and the environment. Unfortunately the business strategy of planned obsolescence meant to increase the profits of the big IT companies further intensifies this process at the extra cost of the planet and its inhabitants. It's bad enough when phone companies pursue their profits with little regard to the planet, but it adds insults to injury when the computer manufacturers do this without even really increasing their own profits.

You see, you may not care about GNU/Linux, but people like Helios devoted to refurbishing recycled computers for the disadvantaged choose GNU/Linux over outdated or pirated Windows for good reasons -- it makes the recycled computers greener, cleaner, more Ethical, and more educational. With manufacturer-enforced secure boot, these computers would go to the landfills or "recycling" centers instead of going to the disadvantaged because Helios and other people who care would not be allowed to install GNU/Linux for them. And the hardware manufacturers don't even make more money because of these extra, unnecessary harms done to the disadvantaged and to the planet, if profit-making is ever a justifiable excuse for irresponsible manufacturing behaviors! These disadvantaged people are not going to buy new computers because they cannot get refurbished computers.

What can you do to help? Grab (perhaps with the help of you Linux friend) some live Linux CD from distrowatch, and maybe additionally create a live usb from it. Demand to boot the live CD or live usb before purchasing your next computer. Make sure that it is some minor Linux distribution, not just the store-suggested Linux distribution, that successfully boots. It's not about denouncing big brand Linux versions. It's about making sure that you get to decide whom to trust your computer security to. Show the computer guys in the store this article if necessary and insist on buying a computer that allow the buyers to disable the secure boot feature of UEFI. You don't need to love or use or even learn GNU/Linux if software freedom do not appeal to you. You can simply use it as a tool for testing the computer and discard it afterwards (though it would be a pity). Please do this for the planet, for the disadvantaged, for the society, if not for yourself as a wise consumer who knows to claim his/her full ownership of the purchased computer and basic user rights.

Tuesday, January 19 2010

The Likely Victims of This Year's BSA raid: Internet Cafe's and Other Computer Rental Businesses

Do you run a business that involves any form of computer rental such as internet cafe, for-profit computer training center, and/or hotel that provides computers for the convenience of the guests? Do you live in a country like Taiwan where BSA (Business Software Alliance) does yearly raid to small and medium businesses with the help of your government because they are pressured by, or have some inconvenient relationship with BSA? My guess is that BSA will target this new group of software "pirates" -- yes even if they have already paid for the first layer of the Microsoft taxes. But there is a way -- maybe even a much more profitable way -- out if you are willing to try diskless computers + mother tongue bootable usb keys.

Recently Microsoft quietly made it legal for businesses to rent Windows and/or Office. See for example Preston Gralla's "Windows and Microsoft Office rental: Much less than meets the eye" or Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols's "Windows goes rental". An MS Windows/Office user would be naive to read this as a good news -- especially if s/he runs a business that rents computers but has never bothered to read MS EULA (specifically, point 5).

For according to the EULA, all internet cafe's are illegal businesses -- you hear it right -- even if you have already paid for the licenses for all copies of Windows and Offices on your computers. The very act of renting it to your customers violates the EULA. So the right way to interpret MS's recent move is that: after paying MS the first time for each and every copy of your software, you can now become a legal business once you pay the second layer of the MS taxes for the privilege of renting it to your customers. How nice and charitable! Big applauses and touching music for the generous Emperor, please!

Maybe this is a good time to try a new, intimidation-free, more ethical, and more profitable alternative for your business. I will address specifically to internet cafe owners, but other computer rental businesses may also find similar opportunities using the same technology. (See the "usb boot" tag for more applications.) Consider allocating a portion of your computers to serve foreign visitors instead of the local kids playing online games. Remove their harddisks so that they are as easy to manage as a TV -- no viruses, no software crashes, no upgrades, only "power on" and "power off". Put a sign "Mother Tongue Internet Cafe" outside your business and also mark it on google maps with this term. Sell your customer a linux bootable usb key preloaded with his/her language(s), make a good profit while giving your customer a home-welcoming experience that s/he never has had elsewhere. Ask a local Linux business for technical help and share your profits with them. Then decide for yourself: which part of your business makes more sense? The windows machines with the two layers of taxes that do nothing to save you from the constant crashes and virus attacks, or the zero-management diskless machines plus the highly profitable usb key sales? Oh, yes, it is a good thing to distribute free software for a fee.

If your government truly cares about anti-piracy and also about promoting local economical activities such as tourism and a local computer industry, you should definitely explain the ideas in this article and the "internet mother tongue" article to them, maybe with the help of a local LUG (Linux User Group). We all linux users are eager to see which country is the first to tout about its friendliness towards foreigner visitors in this respect.

Sunday, August 2 2009

Tux USB Keys Can Make Your Donated Computers Greener, Cleaner, More Ethical, and More Educational

Did you ever participate in a computer donation project meant to help educate the children in remote villages or less developed countries or areas? Did you ever wonder who might take care of a crashed computer or one infected with viruses once the volunteer workers left the village? Chances are that none in the village have the time and skills to deal with a blue screen of death or to upgrade the anti-virus software. In the unlikely event that the donated computers are miraculously maintained to keep functioning and did not become victims of viruses or virus-spreading zombies, did it ever occur to you that the kids are bound to live under either constant shortage of educational software (no, word processing is NOT educational at all) or constant shame of illegal download?

Indeed such donations can be greener, cleaner, more ethical, and more educational at the same time, and it can help develop tourism, preserve culture, and protect human rights -- if the harddisks are removed, and the kids are given bootable tux usb keys.

You see, computer hardware parts don't fail that often. Crashes are more often caused by malfunctioning software, while viruses and other malwares are mischievous software in themselves and can either crash the computer or, even worse, turn the victim computer into a cooperative criminal. All these malfunctioning softwares live in harddisks. An orphanage in a remote village, for example, is unlikely to have enough resources to deal with these problems without continuous outside help. Remove the harddisks, and you remove all these software-related troubles along with the harddisks. The computers by themselves will be forever free from malfunctioning and mischievous software. Think of such a computer as a DVD player, an Wii, a PlayStation, or a digital photo frame. One never worries about "anti-virus protecting" or "disinfecting" or "organizing" or "managing" or "re-installing" these appliances. If such an appliance ever crashes, one just reboots it. You don't need an expert tied up to a village on a long term basis (not even part time) in order just to keep the computers working, in order just to keep these donations of love from becoming hazards to the environment of the very place you want to help.

"How does such a computer work without harddisks to hold its software?" Well, A Wii or a PlayStation is driven by software on a CD ROM. Our computer is driven by software on a usb key (usb stick/usb pendrive). "Ah, but a usb key is an infamous source for viruses." Well, yes if you are obliged to run Microsoft Windows. But our usb keys run Linux. Linux, due to its design philosophy, will still be much safer than Windows even when ("when", not "if") it replaces MS Windows as the most popular operating system. For now, it is 100% virus free, period.

So the idea is to have a small number of diskless computers to be shared by many kids each carrying his or her own Linux usb key. The child sees her own desktop/background/bookmarks and everything, no matter which computer she happens to use. Each child can work like s/he owns one computer most of the time. One or two recovery usb keys should be kept in the hands of a care taker or an older, responsible child. It should not be used on a daily basis. If anyone's usb key ever crashes for whatever reason, it can be restored from the recovery usb key. The recovery process is slightly more involved than dragging and dropping files, but is orders of magnitude easier than trouble-shooting a computer and/or installing device drivers (if you still keep these CD's for each donated computer) for each peripheral after re-installing MS Windows.

And the recovery process does not need any serial number, is in fact also the cloning process, and can be repeated for any number of new kids on new usb keys, legally. That brings us to the even more important moral reason for choosing FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software), to which GNU/Linux and the companion educational programs belong. To quote Richard M. Stallman in Why schools should exclusively use free software:

School should teach students ways of life that will benefit society as a whole. They should promote the use of free software just as they promote recycling.
The most fundamental mission of schools is to teach people to be good citizens and good neighbors—to cooperate with others who need their help.
Teaching the students to use free software, and to participate in the free software community, is a hands-on civics lesson. It also teaches students the role model of public service rather than that of tycoons.

It is sad that not enough teachers have thought through or even read these profound statements. There is, however, one higher level of ethical importance built on these considerations for a charity to spread GNU/Linux and other FLOSS instead of Microsoft Windows and other proprietary technologies. A charity surely wants to help the children grow up to contribute to the agricultural and econometric independence of his poor country, than to seduce the kids, and hence their country as a whole, into the mindless upgrade cycle, only to serve the monopolist who even publicly welcomes piracy as an opportunity for seeding new addictions. It is bad enough whether the charity obtains legal copies of the proprietary softwares from donation or by paying for them using donated money. It is unforgivably worse if the charity installs illegal copies of the software for the kids, thereby reducing their respect for the law.

[click on the image for an enlarged view]

Speaking of education, there are way more educational values in a 4GB Tux usb key than even in a Microsoft Windows computer full of hundreds of gigabytes of pirated software. Limited by the length of this article, I will just show you a collection of screenshots here. You could also look at larger pictures by moving the mouse to the lower right corner of my slides (in Traditional Chinese) and flipping through the first dozen of pages. You will begin to understand why MIT Prof. Nicholas Negroponte considers it criminal to teach children word/excel/powerpoint. You will also see why I, as a member of OFSET (Organization for Free Software in Education and Teaching), am more excited to have an audience of math/physics/chemistry/..., teachers than one of computer specialists, in my frequent speeches about FLOSS.

But there are even more advantages of adopting this under-popularized technology, especially for an international charity hoping to help in aspects such as culture and human rights besides economy.

  1. Volunteers from different countries and cultures can each use his or her own language to contact family and friends at home. (Think about "volunteer tourism".)
  2. What applies to volunteers, applies to tourists, too. The village will be able to offer "Mother Tongue Internet" services to foreign visitors as an extra minor incentive to their local tourism. (Please search if the copy you read doesn't have a link.)
  3. In the long run, it will foster a localized computer maintenance industry. People bring their malfunctioning usb keys to a local "computer doctor", who charges money because she installs any desirable free software from the internet for the benefit of the client instead of forcefully selling him drug-like addictive proprietary technology for the benefit of the drug dealer, I mean the software vendor who uses non-open file format with legal traps to lock down the addicted users.
  4. It may eventually help preserve local minority cultures by preserving their languages, which is one good reason for multicultural countries like India to use GNU/Linux even when there is a high migration cost. (See paragraphs about "language" in that article.)
  5. Someday, the mobility and the complete independence of usb keys (from host computers) will protect the human rights and freedom of speech of the citizens against government censorship and/or surveillance.

So volunteers and computer donars, please bring this article to the attention of a charity you know of. Charity workers, please contact your local LUG people (Linux User Group) for technical help. The technological solutions these LUG (or FLOSS) people offer may not be exactly the same as what I propose here. (see slax, and optionally plus mk-boot-usb for technical details.) For example, Sugar on a Stick, a technology related to the MIT's charity project OLPC, is also a bootable usb key. Its emphasis is more on the logic, programming, and social network aspects of education, but I was told that interesting geometry learning tools such as Dr. Geo II may also be included. Some may offer FreeBSD or Open Solaris as equally powerful alternatives to GNU/Linux on a usb key. Yet others may propose DRBL or LTSP for different technical considerations. The latter two technologies are equally ethical and educational choices as they are also FLOSS, although arguablly they may have less powerful social impacts in the long run.

Charity is a spiritual endeavor that not only empowers the helped, but also inspires and elevates the helpers and the spectators like me. When it comes to the choice of computer software for donation, it requires a conscious and moral consideration of the chosen technology's ethical and philosophical foundation as well as its long term social consequences. Many of us in the FLOSS community look forward to contributing to your great cause if you make the right choice.


  1. In fact, removal of harddisk is not essential. The important point is not to rely on it as the main operating system. The harddisk can still serve as a storage.
  2. This article was inspired by an event: Students of Chang-Hua Senior High School from Taiwan visited El Shaddai Orphanage in Swaziland to join the charity efforts of the NPO "Heart for Africa". The education part was not very successful from my technical point of view. So I only report it in Traditional Chinese. There is a short clip about this event (not about the concept in this article) on YouTube.
  3. Interested in more articles about diskless computers + bootable tux usb keys? Here are a few more article about "usb boot".

Sunday, May 31 2009

Let Tux USB Keys Make Your Foreign Customers Feel at Home

Imagine you visiting Taiwan or Finland or Nepal. You cannot find a single computer that speaks your language. Not even one which speaks English. Would you rather use a "familiar" windows computer that speaks an incomprehensible language, or would you rather use an amusingly "unfamiliar" computer that has funny penguin icons called "Tux" and that speaks your mother tongue?

Now turn around the table and let's say that you run a restaurant or an internet cafe. A sane foreign visitor in your country would surely choose to use a tux computer that speaks her mother tongue in preference to the "familiar" windows computers. So here goes the proposal: Restaurant and Internet cafe owners, please contact your local LUGs and let them show you how to profit from Free/Libre/Open Source Software while making your customers feel at home -- computer-wise.

So you have heard of GNU/Linux and/or FLOSS as an alternative to Microsoft Windows. You didn't have time to try this daunting new technology with 3-d desktops and you didn't know that "free" means "freedom" not "gratis", that you are welcome to make money out of it. That's ok. We will leave all the explanation works to your local LUGs -- Linux User Groups. I will just tell you how to make your foreign customers happy while making good money out of it.

First google for your local LUG. For example, in Taiwan, I would google for "Taiwan Linux User Group". Offer them a one-time free space for a Linux advocacy event in exchange of their technical advices on the proposals in this article.

Learn to use a usb key (or usb stick or pendrive) to boot a diskless computer. Now you know that computers really don't need internal harddisks at all. That saves you, the owner, a lot of troubles -- no license fees, no viruses, no trojan horses, no leak of customers privacies, no legal burdens caused by customers' illegal downloads, ... You will realize that you can enjoy the benefits of computer LOHAS multiplied by the number of the computers in your internet cafe! Managing your PC's becomes as easy as managing TV sets. Plus, these PC's are cheaper than the ordinary ones.

Learn the demographics of your usual foreign customers -- what are the few languages used by most of them? Pay you local LUG members to create the first "French Live USB", the first "Chinese Live USB", and so on. Yes, typically you have to pay them for the efforts of creating the first live usb or live DVD. But cloning costs $0 if the first version is compatible with clonezilla or unetbootin or mk-boot-usb and if you spend your own time for the cloning work.

Put a sign "Surf the net. In your language." Ask an interested foreign customer if she has a bootable linux usb key. If she doesn't know what that is, you can, in addition to the computer rental charge, sell her a bootable linux usb key. Don't be shy about making good profits from these $0 cost clones. Just make it clear that they are welcome to clone these bootable usb keys if they are willing to read the howto's on the internet. For the rental fee, you may well charge a bit higher than your competitors since the competitors don't offer such convenience to foreign visitors. As a beneficial side effect, you are more likely to attract foreign visitors who just want to use the internet to find information than teen-agers who want to play online games. You are most lucky if your city happens to host international events such as world games, etc., where many foreigners will come without their notebook computers. This year (2009) Kaohsiung city and Taipei city in my country could benefit from this, but it's a pity that I fail to get this idea to the relevant people.

Go to google maps (or some site to be linked from here in the future) and register your business. Put "mother tongue internet" in your descriptions. Hopefully a few years from now, a traveller will be able to search on googlemaps for such places in a foreign country and enjoy surfing the internet in his own language. I will let you know that I am the author of this article if I happen to visit your "mother tongue internet cafe". Let's have fun and have a few drinks, cheers!

To fellow FLOSS advocates: please summarize (or even translate) this article into your language. Please leave a comment here pointing to your translation. Please also spread the translation -- not just to linux sites, but most importantly to sites about tourism (into your country) and traveling (away from your country). Let commercial power from the tourism sector help the tux fleets of usb keys boldly go where no windows has gone before!

Sunday, March 22 2009

Tux Fleets of USB Keys to Boldly Go Where No Windows Has Gone Before

Tux USB fleets are about to boldly go where no Windows
has gone before Microsoft is afraid of bootable Linux key drives. Tux USB fleets are about to boldly go where no Windows has gone before. Let's speed up this process by emphasizing educational opportunities in remote village, mutlilingual experiences in international events, and diskless computers.

A few months ago, we made a legislative attempt (zh_TW) to ask Taiwanese government in their procurement plans to prioritize machines supporting 0-keypress usb-key booting. It was not about forcing the government officials to use Linux on usb keys. It was not about forcing them to use Linux at all. It was a humble request that there be a way to set up the BIOS so that usb keys can be the first boot device without user intervention just like cdroms or floppies have always been, that these machines have a useful second life as donations to remote villages when they finish their services in the government. Microsoft adamantly objected (zh_TW), giving misleading responses that distort the truth. Our attempt failed, but it revealed that MS is really afraid of usb-booting. We shouldn't really care about what MS thinks. We should just mind our own business and boldly go where no windows has gone before. But that's exactly what MS is afraid of anyway :-)

Let's look away from the ICT community. Let's talk to people who care about digital divide. Labs with diskless computers can be set up in schools at remote villages. Linux-bootable usb keys loaded with scientific and educational software can be distributed to girls and boys. (No, we don't mean office apps, we mean apps offered by Freeduc-Science and the like.) School library is the place to restore the usb key if it gets messed up. Teachers will have much less hassle managing their labs. New versions of usb keys created by LUGs in the metropolitan can be delivered to the remote villages through snail mail. See full article in zh_TW.

Let's look away from the ICT community. Let's talk to organizers of international conferences or other international events such as sports and exhibitions. Diskless computers with internet connection can be set up at two or three sites such as the athletes' villages. Ask each foreign visitor to select her preferred language(s) and give her a linux-bootable usb key loaded with language(s) of her choice. Make them really feel at home in these events -- at least in terms of reading mails, instant messaging, and accessing the web. Let them marvel at the fact that the same computer that spoke Korean a few minutes ago now speakis Japanese. That's what I shall do with the EASTS academic conference in a few weeks.

Let's look away from the ICT community. Let's talk to businesses that help students to go abroad for degrees. Show them how a linux-bootale usb key (or a bunch of backup keys) can be heavenly helpful when the notebook computer an overseas student brings with him crashes. It won't be too hard to make a choice between having to use the "unfamiliar linux OS" in his own language to chat with his friends at the home country, and fretting over a sweetly familiar but dead windows. They will realize that non-techies, too, are entitled to a 80% computer-LOHAS life style.

Let's look away from the ICT community. Let's talk to the tourism business and specifically to the unions of hotels. Tell them how they could let their customers use their own languages to surf the net during their stay at the hotel. The hotels could lease the diskless computers and sell usb keys. Let's ask the union to organize the hotels to register in some wiki or googlemap, so that any foreign visitor can easily locate along her itinerary hotels that offer such service. See full article in zh_TW.

Do you see the cyan area? You get the idea. Let's talk to people and/or businesses who care about mobility and multilingual capability but who did not dare did not know they could ever ask MS for such privileges. Please share more possible applications in the comments. Please also let us know if you see interesting, immediately-perceivable aspects of FLOSS over the present combination of proprietary world other than mobility and multilingual capability. May I also add that we are more likely to find ideas when we think about "combination" -- maybe combination with things beyond software, such as cc-licensed digital contents. The proprietary world strangles themselves by failing to have a simple mechanism to cooperate. Tasks that require a combination of several digital resources more readily reveal the superiority of our free culture.

Back to the main point: why emphasize diskless computers? Why are ordinary computers supporting 0-key-press usb-booting not enough? I see at least three reasons for it.

history of change of dominant players First, it's about lowering the barrier of entry. It's not about the purchase cost, but rather the maintainence/management cost. It is also about the psychological barrier of entry. A hotel manager wouldn't want to deal with upgrades, crasheshes, and viruses of a computer. (Yes, we surely will have loads of Linux viruses when it becomes main stream -- maybe not as severe as in windows, but annoying or detrimental nontheless.) She might be more willing to deal with a broken TV set. And that's how we should emphasize the benefits of such arrangement -- by comparing it to a TV set instead of a traditional computer. By lowering the barrier, we will have a much larger market for linux, thereby ignoring the dominant position of windows. That's what happened when Apple II ignored the dominant position of IBM mainframe. That's what happened when Wintel ignored the dominant position of Apple II. That's also what's happening now: we probably won't see "the year of linux desktop" as an exodus of old timers ditching their windows in favor of linux. We are more likely to see an incredible number of new linux "computers" boldly go where no windows has gone before. OLPC, gphones, openmokos, and netbook are manifestation of this phenomenon. USB keys could be another example -- if only people realize how much less formidable a PC could be when it has no harddisks.

Secondly, innovation can be faster when the components are taken apart, the development are made by separate people/teams, and the result can be freely combined by anyone. I have yet to finish reading The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it by Jonathan Zittrain to have a better argument for this. Still, you can already see that the innovation mechanism encouraged by the Bug Labs may prove to be helpful to accerlate the application of FLOSS into previously unimagined areas of life. More concretely, by separating the hardware vendors from the bootable usb-key vendors, many less well-known linux distributions may suddenly become visible to the ordinary people. Think for a moment about how it would ever be possible for Asus or Acer to preload their PC's or notebooks with artistx specifically for the artists. Yet with diskless computers, this and a lot more analogous things can happen.

Finally, when hardware vendors start selling diskless computers, the debate as to which OS to pre-install will become moot. The shackle that MS places on the hardware vendors (though no one admits to its existence openly) will vanish.

Hilaire of the Dr. Geo fame showed me this encouraging product: the G-Key. (Disclaimer: I am not associated with them.) The key by itself is no big deal. The exciting part is that their computers don't have disks -- not even ssd's. Let's promote similar things all over the world. The Tux fleets of usb keys are about to boldly go where no windows has gone before.

Tuesday, January 20 2009

80% of Computer LOHAS: Virus-Free Life on a USB Key

Imagine a different way of computer life. For 80% of your computer-using time, you carry a usb key as your notebook computer You come to a foreign place and are allowed to use an unfamiliar computer. The computer may work perfectly or it may have been rendered non-bootable by a virus. It may be a powerful one or it may be an inexpensive netbook. It may speak Zulu or Tamil. In any case, you insert your usb key, and in a few minutes you are surfing the net to finish an article that you began writing yesterday on a different computer, while having a chat with your friend in [insert your language here]. When you shutdown the computer and remove your usb key, the computer returned to its original state without any trace of disturbance.

Yes, you can also lead a [computer-wise] virus-free life style of health and sustainability like I do. You can have (mostly) every PC in the planet speak your language for whatever short duration of the close encounter with your usb key. You don't have to give up the familiar MS Windows completely and you don't have to be a computer expert to enjoy all of this (and much more).

You just have to be willing to try.

* * * * *


I split my life between two cities and among 3 or 4 frequently used computers. For some technical reasons I decided to use this Asus z9100 notebook only as a data storage for the past few months. It has no Windows or any other operating systems that fully meet my need. The desktop you see, along with the browser, text-email, instant messenger and many other application programs not shown in the picture, are provided by the usb key. They don't live on this z9100.

During the weekend I decided to install a full operating system on my z9100. But I needed a temporary computer to do my work while the installation proceeded. I could use my wife's HP Pavilion, but she would be mad if I mess with her computer and install strange things on it. So I took the same usb key to her computer and look: it became mine. Temporarily though. Once the installation on my z9100 was finished, I shutdown her computer and returned to my z9100. She didn't even notice that I ever touched her computer in that morning.

In fact I just came back from a two-week trip to Malaysia where I lived my computer life on this usb key and gave a short course in the New Era College. If you ever used an eeepc you would recognize that this picture doesn't look like I was using one. It looked like I was using a full-blown desktop computer. Again, it was just the hardware of eeepc that I was using. All the math/physics/chemistry software plus the OS live on the sd card, which is a clone of my usb key. I could have used their computer for the same effect, but anyway I took my eeepc there just to be on the safe side.

"What's the big deal? Each one was your own computer. Or your wife's computer." OK, let me show you the same usb key working on a French notebook. A few months ago, Hilaire Fernandes of the Dr Geo II fame visited Taiwan. I borrowed his notebook computer for a while. (I wish I had been typing Chinese when I took this picture -- I really could and did do that.) I hope the simultaneous sight of Traditional Chinese characters and the French keyboard give you some idea of my point. No, Hilaire didn't kill me. His computer speaks French again once I removed the usb key and rebooted the computer.

[Totally off topic: Hilaire was taking a picture of me and another friend using his OLPC as an oversized camera. BTW, OLPC doesn't have a harddisk. Its OS lives on something analogous to the usb key I am proposing to you.]

Benefits and Difficulties

I could go on and show you a dozen more machines which I have temporarily converted as my own computer using the usb key and which were left unmodified afterwards. Yet I hope you have seen the point by now. To avoid making this article too long, I will simply list a few more interesting facts without going into details to convince you of my claims.

  1. In fact I can live my computer life 95% of the time on a 2G usb key for the calculus and programming courses that I teach. For you, who don't need too much computing power but need more convenience and comfort, I am sure you can live your computer life 80% of the time on an 8GB usb key.
  2. You are immune to Windows viruses as long as you don't let a running Windows touch the usb key.
  3. You can have several clones as your "backup computers". You will never ever suffer from the anxiety of "my computer is down" whether the cause is viruses or anything else [which might still happen to the usb key]. The worst that could happen is "I am only 80% productive for this period of time, and I have to use an inconvenient computer".
  4. The largest barrier is the booting process. Most computers manufactured after 2005 can be used this way, but it may take 0 to a dozen key strokes to boot from your usb key depending on the make and model. Thus this technology is most suitable to people frequently switching between a small number of computers, or switching between any number of computers of the same make and model.
  5. The major downside of the mobility of such LOHAS life is privacy concern. Be prepared to face the possibility of revealing your privacy when some of your backup keys are lost.

MS Windows?

You don't have to give up MS Windows completely. This way of using computers is a LOHAS complement to, not a complete replacement of, the familiar MS Windows environment. For the remaining 20% of work, feel free to go back to your familiar Windows, For me, the remaining 5% of work is done on a full-blown Ubuntu computer. I don't have to put up with the viruses and the Big Brother's surveillance even for the remaining 5% of work.

Microsoft is capable of selling you such nice technology, but they are extremely unwilling to because it works against their business model. That's why you were never told and you never imagined that computers could be used this way. As a consumer, you have the right to ask Microsoft to sell such products. Please do, and loudly so. Free/Libre Software advocates do not force you against your will to use software that they choose for you. That's what Microsoft does to you, the consumer. A wise consumer knows how to negotiate with all resources available to her, including competitive technologies that are not 100% satisfactory. Before MS respond to your request, please buy such technologies, loudly, from GNU/Linux companies such as PendriveLinux or the HeliOS Project. [Disclaimer: I am not associated with them. You are welcome to find other such companies and leave their or your own web addresses in the comments.] Such collective actions of all consumers [schools, governments, NPO's, bussinesses, ...] and most importantly, their loud opinions expressed as blogs, newsletters, columns, ... collaboratively push Microsoft to respond to your request. If you still care about and prefer Windows after living a 80% LOHAS life with GNU/Linux, that is.


On the other hand, if you come to realize how and why GNU/Linux is so much better than Windows, then you can ignore negotiating with Microsoft completely. They are not worth your efforts. Just follow us to switch completely to this Libre OS and spread your nice experiences with others, in your own language and in your own terms. [Call for help: friends from Global Voices Online, please consider summarizing or even translating this article.]

Being able to lead a computer life on a usb key whenever necessary is beneficial not only to you as a computer user. It has social consequences that fit the LOHAS style. I am not sure how much it has to do with physical health and fitness, but I am sure it is more environment friendly and serves social justice better in the business, consumer, and charity fronts. For now, I only have a presentation, and some articles, all in Traditional Chinese, to discuss the details. However, you may come up with your own ideas if you think about the mobility it implies and if you care about education, digital divide, computer lab management, computer recycling, tourism, and/or many other social aspects influenced by the computer technology.

This is not a technical magic reserved for the Linux Gurus. You can enjoy all of this, too, and lead a [computer-wise] virus-free LOHAS life to make our planet better. And the social benefits of booting from usb key is not even the whole story of what Linux could do to your LOHAS life. One needs to experience it to appreciate how much one has missed by confining one's world to Microsoft exclusively. There are too numerous reasons for us to list in one or in even a dozen articles.

You just have to be willing to try to see it for yourself.

Friday, August 8 2008

Please Sell Us Diskless Computers

We are an unorganized group of FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) advocates. We would like to ask you to provide two classes of computer products so that we can market them for you while fulfilling our own advocacy objectives as well as marketing our own products -- 20 gram notebook computers. Specifically, we need a low-cost low-power diskless computer that boots linux usb sticks (keys), and an LCD TV set that contains such a computer.

* * * * *

How can this be attractive to your and our customers? Think about the hassles of managing and/or using a public computer: viruses, privacy leaks, Blue Screen of Death, illegal downloads of software and music, recovery cards, licence cost and maintence cost of operating system and application software. All of these hassles go away when there is no disk in the computer. On the other hand, the user of such a public computer enjoys extremely high mobility: she carries a mere 20 gram usb stick with her own language, her own list of instant messagenger contacts, and so forth, to anywhere in the world where such public computers are available. Please see the following articles for a more complete reasoning to the consumers: 1 (Chinese), 2 (Chinese).

How can this be attractive to you? A lower price induces a bigger market. It is largely complementary to your existing desktop and notebook computer market due to the OS that it uses. You don't really need an OS partner (though you can still find one, hopefully among us :-] ). Every vendor of linux bootable usb sticks will automatically become your partner, and thus collaboratively enlarging your potential market while they competitively specialize each of their market segments. You no longer have to deal with the largest OS vendor in the planet ;-) Finally, a "diskless computer" attracts better attention from the non-technical public than "a computer that gives priority to bootable usb sticks". Please see the following article for a more complete reasoning to you: 1 (Chinese).

What can we do for you? We are strong advocates for FLOSS. That means you get free marketing help from us. One of the authors, CK, has significant influences over the FLOSS community in Taiwan with his frequent speeches and a bit of visibility in the international FLOSS community with his slightly digged article.

What do we request from you? Please contact one of us: CK and/or leave a comment here. Give us an URL that has a description of your relevant products and ordering information.

Wednesday, July 23 2008

An Advocacy Story: Cloning Bootable USB Sticks for the Audience

Here is a suggestion for fellow FLOSS advocates, especially for those who often give FLOSS speeches like me. First offer to create bootable usb sticks for the audience. Then try to make a press release. Finally let the search heat for your speeches begin.

* * * * *

the 'difference strategy' for FLOSS advocacy I give many FLOSS speeches in my country, Tainwan, as well as a small number in other countries/areas including France, Macao, and Indonesia. One of my FLOSS advocacy strategies is the "difference strategy": emphasize what FLOSS can easily do that proprietary software cannot (instead of giving arguments like "OO.o can also do such and such that MS Office can do). BTW OO.o and other similar FS projects are great and we dearly need them to shrink the other difference. It's just that it's not the best strategy to always take the defensive position and emphasize the intersection part when advocating. (See picture.)

So a few months ago I started writing a perl script mk-boot-usb that slightly simplifies creating bootable usb sticks and greatly simplifies cloning usb sticks it creates. Putting an entire OS plus many apps on a usb stick is certainly not a technical challenge for Microsoft, but it's something that Microsoft would hate to do. They will simply refuse to compete on this front unless they drastically change their business strategy or even business model. This can be a nice example of the "difference strategy".

After that, I started making arrangement before giving a speech, whether it is technical or not, so that:

  1. The speech organizer inform the audience to bring blank usb sticks, and give them search keywords that will find a non-technical article (let's call it X) I wrote about what such a bootable usb stick is about.
  2. There be a few computers that can boot from usb stick or at least can boot from cdrom.
  3. A student of mine be hired to do the cloning work on the spot on that day.

My website enjoys some popularity, and my target audience is restricted to Traditional Chinese readers, so devising search keywords for article X is not too difficult. Remember to try your alternatives on the search engines and pick the least popular one. I suppose putting yourself in non-techincal peoples' shoes would also help. My keywords did not contain "Linux" or "free software" or even "bootable". It is "百毒不侵救命碟", meaning "virus-free computer saver". That may catch an ordinary Windows user's attention better than any of the above. Then there is a link from article X to my google calendar, where I mark my upcoming speeches for which I offer this free (gratis) service to my audience. Finally there are also links in article X to two companies that sell bootable linux usb sticks (though different from mine). The owners of the companies are my friends, but I offer to link to any FLOSS-friendly company that sell such products and/or services.

I began to offer this service even when I was not involved with a speech/activity, and even when the activity has nothing to do with FLOSS, beginning in my University. Then one day a colleague at my university in charge of public relations noticed my activities and asked me to write a short press release about what I was doing with FLOSS. In the following weeks, this news appeared in several medias. Untargeted audience began to appear in my speeches and the keywords became recognized by google and yahoo :-)

making (almost) a dozen usb sticks bootable

I offered to do this for my colleagues at my university when the summer vacation began. 60 or so sticks arrived and because of some mistake I got the opportunity to do the cloning work myself this past weekend. The image of an eeepc cloning linux distributions from one stick to 11 others is just so inspiring that I feel obliged to share it with you all :-) It's still doing it serially and possibly insufficient currents made some of these unsuccessful (which became bootable on second try with fewer neighbors). Nontheless it freed me from attending to the machine every 10 or 20 minutes, a repetitive task that could have been scripted if I had paid more attention to my students' tedious work.

I strongly believe that spreading GNU/Linux on usb sticks is a highly effective advocacy strategy. For example, it renders the debate about which OS to pre-install pointless if hardware vendors can be persuaded to sell diskless computers. I will discuss the higher level advocacy strategy in another article. For now, let's work in each of our own countries with each of our own languages to bring the awareness [of what FLOSS can do that proprietary software cannot] to our countrymen. But be warned: it's also highly addictive to do this cloning work for people...

Tag Change Notice: "usb boot" | 標籤更改通知: "隨身碟開機"

From now on, all English and other non-Chinese articles related to bootable usb sticks (keys/thumb drives) will be tagged as "usb boot". I was not consistent about this earlier and now I expect to write a few English articles about bootable usb sticks. Sorry about causing inconvenience... (Hopefully not too many English readers were reading my "usb boot" related posts; and hopefully there will be many more in a few months.)

從現在起, 所有與 「隨身碟開機」 相關的中文文章, 都改以 "隨身碟開機" 標示。 先前用 "usb" 當標籤, 沒考慮英文文章該怎麼辦; 現在想用英文寫幾篇關於 usb 碟開機的文章, 所以更正。 麻煩讀者更新囉... 抱歉!