Archive for the ‘Product Development’ Category

It’s Starting to Sound a Lot Like Linux Part III: Linux as a Box, Linux as a Service

January 4th, 2010 Comments off

Happy New Year!  Hope you are well and in good spirits.  In my last two posts I talked about upgrading my computer systems, and so far I’m halfway there.  I have the Linux box up and running (which I have named “Atom-Smasher”). But I have not replaced the CPU in my laptop yet, but all in good time.

The main thing for today is to get to the discussion about Linux as a service.  If you read the previous posts you know that I was trying to set up a completely diskless low-cost PC to run Linux.  I wanted a low-cost way to try Linux, but in the back of all of this there was the idea that there is a viable business model waiting to be developed.

Diskless PC’s are nothing new.  The last issue of Wired had a breif discussion about the mid-90s “Internet PC” work done by Oracle.  And low end laptops for developing nations have been part of at least one global effort, and now we see “net-books” being almost free (if you sign up for the phone service).

But when I saw Tom Abel’s offer of a  $150 box, I started thinking about the possibilities.  Now granted Tom can’t offer those prices forever — if all he is selling is a box.  But ask yourself this: how many K-12, how many churches, vocational schools, community colleges, food-banks, NGOs, small businesses of all sorts need cheap, virus free, indestructible computing infrastructure?  All of them.  Think of how many opportunities there are for K-12 computer labs, adult education computer labs, disaster relief situations.  Opportunities are all over the place.

Many years ago I staffed a library reference desk and as part of the job I managed a computer lab.  Twenty or so computers with full installations of Windows (they had some setting that hid most of the Windows features, but it was easy to hack).  On any given night at least 8 reboots.  I said to my supervisor, why not go with Linux? A couple of weeks later the reply came back: “no support for Linux”.  I thought, well, your support for Windows is me rebooting the machines constantly, at a community college teacher’s salary.  Not very cost effective.

So I know something about the use model.  But how to create a successful business model?  One way would be to offer up the boxes at cost +5% (or something) and sell a service contract to maintain them.  Not one box, but 10, or 20 or however many.  Think of a community college computer lab as an example.  Let’s say 20 boxes, no optical drive, no HDD.  The students supply their own flash drive with their own computing environment. They step up, plug in the USB, go to work.  They manage their files on the USB, or use a cloud service (Amazon, Google), or both.  Heck, you could even have them bring their own keyboard.  You could set up the flashdrives for them with Thunderbird, Firefox, OpenOffice for a fee.  The point is they manage their own file services.

If each box has to have it’s own OS, drive it off the network.   The network OS server itself could be run off an ISO image (e.g., a CD).  The maintenance can be done remotely.  It won’t matter if it’s a bit slow, because the use model we’re talking about is not high performance.  What matter is that it’s low, low maintenance, virus free and nearly hack-proof.

This business model would require quite a few boxes under contract to be a meaningful source of income.  And I know there are some technical issues — running the OS off a flashdrive is problematic (more on this later), you need a keyboard, a mouse, a monitor all of which drives up the cost.  But I think the technology will catch up to the use model quite soon (roll-up keyboards, cheaper LCDs, or for that matter maybe micro-projectors).  I think small companies like ICL could make a success out of this.

Like razors and printers, offer the hardware cheap and charge for the service.  It might be possible to sell other services (e.g., webmastering)s along with the maintenance contract.  Lots of possibilities.

Well that’s it for now.  Have a great day and thanks for stopping by!
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It’s Starting to Sound a Lot Like Linux Part II: Purchase and Set UP

December 30th, 2009 Comments off

Well here we are post Christmas, pre New Years. Happy Holidays!

If you read my last post you know I set out to find a small-form factor PC on a tight budget, as well as upgrade the CPU for my laptop computer.  And I did: the upgrade CPU cost me $30, and I found a seller on eBay who was offering a small PC with an atom dual-core processor, 2gb memory installed, an optical drive, all for $150.  This is from Tom Abel at The Independent Computer Lab.  Tom was originally offering the box for a bit more, but since I don’t need a hard-drive or an OS he lowered the price, and he wants to get his business going and get some reviews, so he offered a steep discount.  I had done quite a bit of research on the Intel Atom Dual Core;  I was convinced after about a week of off-and-on research that for my purposes the device that Tom was offering would be enough.  Not a screamer, not exactly cutting edge, but enough.

Tom responded quickly to my request for information and specs, and we worked out a deal.  Tom was quick to grasp what I was after, and in fact he had a Linux box auction going on eBay right after we started corresponding (even though he, by his own admission, is not a Linux guy). He also followed up with offering to supply the HDD at a low price, but with all the network storage I have it was not needed. Plus I wanted to experiment with setting up a simple device driven by a USB flash drive.  We’ll go over that in Part III.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind as we go forward here: one, life is not very convenient, and secondly, Tom’s business model is to deliver an assembled bare-bones small form factor PC.  More about business models and opportunities in Part III.

So the stage was set: get the PC from Tom, set it up (keyboard, mouse, LCD), power it up, boot off the Kubuntu CD, and optimize as needed.   Then install the new CPU for my laptop (the sequence was meant to insure I had at least one computer alive in case one got bricked).  I have to say I was pretty excited.

Tom had the PC delivered within 3 days (Tom covered the shipping costs).  As it so happens I was having a working lunch with my local partner so we decided to get the box up and running.  He happens to be a Linux expert, so I figured it would be good to have him helping out.

The first thing we noticed was the memory had not been installed, which was no big deal, but we also noticed we couldn’t get the CD drive to open.  We discovered that the case was malformed — the optical drive simply would not fit correctly in the opening allowed.  We also noticed the wrong screws were used to lock the optical drive into place.  I figured I could solve the case problem later, so we simply set the front cover aside and booted up using the Kubuntu CD.  Which worked: the unit was in fine working order as near as we could tell.

Remember what I said about life being inconvenient? So be it.  My response was, and is, given that life is full of problems the main thing is responding effectively and appropriately.  I gave Tom an update on the situation, and he apologized and explained that he hadn’t tested the system because, unlike the others he sold it didn’t have a HDD (e.g., no OS).  He used the wrong screws because he didn’t have the right ones and he wanted the unit to be shipped to me as quickly as possible.  Which I understood; how the manufacturer could goof up a standard like a case cover is beyond me, and had that not been the “case” (ha!) the screws would never have been seen. (As it happens I found the correct screws in the accessories).

Like I said, it’s all about appropriate responses.  I was still OK with everything; a bit behind schedule, but that is nothing new.

So I filed the front case cover to accommodate the optical drive, got it to fit just fine.  (took about 10 minutes, it’s plastic, just had to be careful to vacuum everything carefully as I went).  Booted back up with the CD, did a bit of surfing using Konquerer,  and got happy again.  Next step: use the Kubuntu USB boot wizard to create a USB boot drive.   (Another topic that required a bit of time to research: but the end result is that the Kubuntu team created a wizard to format and install the OS to a flash drive).

Well, when I went to reboot the PC, it wouldn’t. No beep, no fan, nothing.  I could diodes lit up, but nothing useful.  I didn’t see any loose wires, nothing out of place.  I spent about an hour looking at it, reading various web pages, hoping to discover it was some simple thing.

Tom and I exchanged a couple of emails, and concluded that the unit was dead.  He sent me a replacement, which arrived in a couple of days (again he paid the shipping).

The new unit had a slightly larger from cover opening, so I was able to squeeze in the optical drive.  Once the memory was installed, the unit booted right up.  I’m using it now to write this post.

The sum total is this: Tom Abel delivered as promised, and responded quite well to a bad situation.  He stepped up and did what was needed, with no complaint or equivocation.  My 11 years at HP included reading lots of research on satisfaction, and everybody — HP, Dell, Gateway, IBM — took their fare share of dissatisfaction.

Would I recommend Tom Abel? Sure. I give him 5 out of 5 stars for customer service, and 3 for the product.  I’m guessing the mistakes we’ve seen won’t happen again.  What I also recommend, which is what my blogs are about, is to your research first.  Look around, ask around. If you can’t deal with a bare-bones computer, pay the extra $100 and buy a brand name.  For me that $100 was an important savings.  (More about why that is important in Part III).

The unit Tom sent has been up and running for several days; I installed Firefox, Thunderbird, got a printer set up, figured out to access the network storage. It’s not perfect, but it’s working.  Right now Tom and I are working on finding a simple way to update the BIOS (simple on a DOS machine, not so much in this case).

My next step is to install the Dothan CPU into my laptop.  With that, I will have (essentially) 2 new computers for less then $200, plus the cost of a keyboard and some spare parts.

Have a great day and thanks for stopping by!

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It’s Starting to Sound a lot like Linux Part I: the R&D

December 28th, 2009 1 comment

Well I hope everybody had a great Holiday Season!  It’s still going on for me; I don’t call it quits until January 1.  Among other things I wanted to get done in the new year was to upgrade my computer systems.  I’m running a Presario notebook, an HP Media Vault, and a Slimserver across a simple network using a Linksys router.  Not much to it really.  But the old notebook, never very fast, seemed slower and slower.

As it so happens I’ve been wanting to transition to Linux for quite a while (several years) but for various reasons didn’t.  Mainly because my work environment was Windows, and so over time it became somewhat scary to think about switching.  Friends of mine had been telling me for years to make the switch “cold turkey”.  I tried various CD-Boot disks, thought about creating a dual boot system, etc.  What I really wanted was a dedicated Linux box, and a dedicated Windows box.  But I was afraid of the price.

But I kept thinking about it, and since I was already using one Linux device (the Slimserver), and another (the HPMV), and they were rock-solid (the HPMV has been up for a year with no downtime except once, the other day, when I accidentally unplugged it), and I am rebooting Windows every day to start fresh, and the Linux guys just seem to having so much fun, I felt I had to do something.

So I decided to start using as many Linux applications on Windows that I could find.  First Thunderbird (and the Lightning extension), and then the Sun OpenOffice Suite.  And of course Firefox.  So I had all the basics going with respect to office productivity, no reason not to switch. Right? Well I just was not going to do it. I had iTunes, I had other things, whatever.

So I thought well I’ll get a new computer and use the old one as a Linux box.  Then I said, well, why not buy a used laptop? Something still useful, something that had some life left with a bit of care and an upgrade or two.  The bottom line was I wanted small footprint, and better then what I have now.  But I didn’t see anything I wanted, or what I wanted was not available at my price, and when I looked at new equipment I could not find the right balance of price and utility.  Ah yes, the magic product triad: utility, price and availability!

I was stymied.  Ah but necessity is the mother of creative thinking.  I asked myself this: could I get my hands on SFF computer with no OS and no hard-drive, and what would it cost?  I didn’t need the OS because I could install it myself, I didn’t need a HD because I had the HPMV, I didn’t need wireless, I didn’t need a high end device to run Linux, and I was thinking 2GB would work fine.  All this thinking was over the course of the last couple of months.

I went search for a small form factor device, no OS, a basic mother board and CPU.  As it so happens the first thing I ran into was the fit-PC. A neat little device that fits in the palm of your hand.  I saw a few other SFF devices that were contenders, but none were quite right.  About then I got the idea that one thing I could do would be to upgrade the processor to my laptop.  So the Linux box thing took a back seat for a couple of days while I tracked down information on a CPU for my laptop.  This turned out to be a Dothan CPU, which I ordered from MDParts.

Now I had the plan: install the new CPU, set up a small Linux box, and make the transition.  The research i was doing on small form factor PC’s convinced me I could get by with an Intel Atom Dual Core.  I should point out I did hours of reading to nail down what I wanted — doing the research up front saves a lot of headache down the road.

My budget? $200 bucks plus change was the target.  The CPU, being old technology, was cheap ($30).  And I figured I could find a bare-bones deal out there somewhere to fit my needs and budget — and I did!  All that and more in part II!

Have a great day, and thanks for stopping by.

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PlumbBob Research and Agorasys Announce RecallCheck!

April 22nd, 2009 Comments off

PlumbBob Research and Agorasys Announce RecallCheck!
An Application for the Google Phone!

If you read my previous post on sizing up the mobile phone market, you know that I’ve been partnering up with my friend at Agorasys to develop a mobile phone app.  Well we did it!  The application is called RecallCheck and it was posted to the Android Market yesterday.

RecallCheck allows anyone with an Android based phone to scan in a barcode and search the FDA website for that product to see if it’s on the FDA site as being recalled.  The app is easy to use and fast.

We’re really quite proud of it.  We think it should be part of everyone’s home tool-kit.  Everyone wants to make sure the food they eat is clean and free of contamination, and using this kind of tool is a great first step.

If you have a Google phone “check” it out!  If you don’t, let us know what kind of phone you have and maybe we’ll port it over (we’re thinking about RIM and the Palm Pre as the next platforms).

If you don’t have a Google phone, let us know what you think anyway.  How concerned are you about food recalls?  How do you find out about them?  How do food recalls impact your grocery shopping habits?  Let us know, and share your thoughts with others on this site.

And remember to keep your vertical reference tools close at hand!