Friday, October 23, 2009

An Amazing Coincidence or Something More Sinister?

Yesterday, as anyone involved in computing knows, Windows 7 was released by Microsoft with much marketing hype and fanfare. Apple responded with some new clever commercials basically saying that Windows 7 comes with all the security problems and other issues that previous Windows versions have had. Maybe so.

Canonical chose the day to announce the release candidate of their upcoming Ubuntu Linux 9.10 (Karmic Koala), scheduled for final release next week. I'm running Karmic on the HP Mini 110 in a dual boot configuration with HP Mi, a customized Ubuntu 8.04 LTS for netbooks. So far this release is extremely promising and may be their best since Edgy Eft. I certainly haven't found any show stopping bugs.

Hewlett-Packard also did something yesterday, albeit very quietly. HP removed Linux entirely from the part of their website where they sell netbooks. The day Windows 7 became available the HP Mi interface appears to have died a quiet death. A visit to the HP Mini pages reveals that HP is only offering "genuine" Windows 7 and "genuine" Windows XP. I also noticed that the HP Mini 110 also sports a new, higher starting price, a full US $25 more than when I ordered mine earlier this month. I have to assume the Windows license is part of the higher price.

The timing of the apparent death of Mi may be an amazing coincidence. I have no inside knowledge of the decision making process at HP. However, there is substantial history of Microsoft playing hardball with hardware vendors. There is also significant evidence of increased interest and demand for Linux, with Acer unveiling a new Linux (Android) netbook offering after having previously dropped from the Open Source operating system.

The Asus story is particularly striking example of how Microsoft is widely believed to have forced a hardware vendor out of the Linux market. The company which started the netbook revolution with their EeePC running Linux in 2007 launched an "It's better with Windows" campaign early this year which drew the ire of many in the Linux community. Then in June at Computex in Taiwan Asus proudly displayed an EeePC with a Qualcomm Snapdragon (ARM) processor running Android. The following day Asus' chairman Jonney Shih found himself sharing a stage with Microsoft corporate VP, OEM Division, Steven Guggenheimer. Shih apologized for showing the Android EeePC, a move which resulted in many angry columns about Microsoft strong-arm tactics.

Around the same time Asus executives were doing all they could to throw Linux under the proverbial bus. Asus Australia consumer market product manager Gordon Kerr stated in late May that Linux was likely to be completely phased out by Asus on netbooks. At the time he said:
"People bought the original seven- and eight-inch Eee PCs for a computer to give to the kids. If you want the full functionality of a notebook you are going to go with Windows.”
Never mind that the relatively poor performance of Windows on netbooks when compared to Linux didn't exactly help create satisfied customers as I reported back in June. The response from many previously satisfied Asus EeePC owners was typified by blogger James Sparenberg in a post titled "We don't need you either Asus."

As I reported in my survery of Linux netbooks currently on the market published just yesterday it turns out Asus never did fully leave the Linux market. Toys 'R' Us still sells Linux based EeePC, albeit older models, both online and in its stores. Asus also continues to offer Linux on their Eee Box nettop PCs. However, when Betanews questioned Josh Norem, a senior technical marketing specialist at Asus, about the possibility of a new Linux offering last month he replied "Not at this time." This from a company that had touted its Linux offerings and high Linux sales early this year.

Some may also remember testimony by Garry Norris of IBM when the U.S. Department of Justice went after Microsoft a decade ago. He detailed how Microsoft effectively killed OS/2, IBM's technically superior operating system, and how Microsoft effectively controlled IBM's PC business at the time.

There is little doubt that Hewlett-Packard devoted considerable development effort to the Mi interface. I'm not one who believes much in conspiracy theories but in light of Microsoft's historical dealings with it's vendors it sure would be one amazing coincidence if HP decided to kill Mi on precisely the day Windows 7 launched without any undue influence from Redmond.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

American Brand Name, Chinese Computer

10 days ago I wrote an article for O'Reilly about the premature failure of my Sylvania netbook. I ended up deciding to buy an HP Mini 110 Mi Edition (more on my choices soon) and ordered it custom built to my specs directly from Hewlett-Packard. It was competitively priced (and slightly less expensive than what's on HP's website now) and I was promised that the netbook would ship within six days. The turnaround time was much better than what Dell offered. I've read mainly positive reviews of this particular netbook, including one by Ladislav Bodnar on DistroWatch Weekly. As many of you probably know I write fairly regularly for Ladislav and I definitely to respect the man and his opinions. The netbook did, in fact, ship on the sixth day: from Shangai, China.

I knew that most if not all the netbooks, laptops, and notebooks sold today are built in a handful of factories located either in mainland China or Taiwan. I was under no illusion that buying an American brand name meant an American product. What surprised me is that HP apparantly doesn't even have stock of this netbook in the U.S. and doesn't even do simple customizations here.

In recent weeks Dell announced it was closing a Winston-Salem, North Carolina manufacturing plant and giving the work to "third parties" in Mexico and other countries. Despite President Obama's campaign rehtoric about keeping American manufacturing jobs in the United States companies keep outsourcing the work offshore or moving their own facilities to other countries with less expensive labor costs, poor or no environmental regulations, and little or no protections for workers. Meanwhile unemployment in the United States continues to rise. Here in North Carolina our unemployment rate is well above the national average.

I see this continuing loss of American manufacturing capacity, which is already a small fraction of what it once was, as a long term disaster for this country. Anyone who knows their history knows that when the U.S. entered World War II it rapidly converted the then unmatched manufacturing facilities to wartime production very quickly. If a major world conflict started today or in the near future I fear that we have no ability to do the same thing again. A pretty smart guy named Albert Einstein, who was a pacifist prior to the Second World War, held much more pragmatic views after the rise of Nazism. He famously said, "So long as there are men there will be wars." Sadly I believe he was right. That makes it the height of foolishness to leave the United States in a position where it cannot be ready for war quicky no matter how much we value peace.

I've come to believe a little protectionism would go a long way, particularly when it comes to industries vital to our economy, our defense, or both. I am mindful of history and the last thing I'd want Congress and the President to do is pass something like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act during a deep recession or what, I believe in retrospect, we will call a depression. The last thing I want to do is severely curtail international trade. Having said all of that I am no longer the believer in free trade that I once was. I do feel trade will need to be a little less free and a bit more regulated to insure both American jobs and American defense capability.

The kind of severely under-regulated free trade we now have has meant lower prices for consumers. The fact that my new computer is made in China is one of the reasons it is so inexpensive. I would gladly pay more for one made in the United States. I can remember when this country was the leading manufacturer of personal computers. Today, to even recapture a small share of PC manufactuing in the U.S. would require government intervention.

Every President we've had since Ronald Reagan, Republicans and Democrats alike, have repeated the mantra of free trade over and over again. I wonder how Republicans who claim to be so concerned about national defense can justify promoting the wholesale export of manufacturing which has happened over the past 30 years. Similarly, I wonder how Democrats who claim to be so deeply concerned about the environment and workers' rights can do precisely the same when many of the countries which have succesfully imported manufacturing capacity and jobs have no such concerns. Any claim of concern about human rights by either party, by liberals or conservatives, rings hollow when we export our jobs and manufacturing capacity to countries that have abominable human rights records. It seems corporate profits and corporate lobbyists trump any and all other concerns. Greed remains the real G-d of early 21st century America.

It's way past time we examine the real costs of "free trade" instead of just parroting well worn lines about the benefits. I think if we do an honest cost-benefit analysis of free trade we will find that it is anything but free and, indeed, may do more harm than good as it is structured today.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Boycott Britain

Anyone who knows me knows I like tea. I drink a lot of it. I always buy loose leaf tea of all sorts. One of the least expensive brands of loose leaf tea, and one that sells excellent English and Irish Breakfast Tea blends, is Twinings, a British company. Today I went shopping and walked right past the Twinings tea. I am buying tea from American companies, imported Chinese tea, anything but British. Today I started my personal boycott of all things British and I urge everyone who supports Israel to join me.

In case you haven't following the news the British are increasingly boycotting Israeli goods and services. Major British trade unions have been boycotting Israel since 2007. AISH has published an alarming report about the rise of anti-Semitism, not just anti-Zionism, in the UK and how it is no longer taboo to express hate and loatihing for the Jewish people in Britain. Even the BBC, which has repeatedly stoked the flames of anti-Semitism with its strong anti-Israel bias, reported a record rise in UK anti-Semitism in the first half of this year. In the spring of last year Hebrew University historian Robert S. Wistrich, who was himself educated at Cambridge Univesity stated, ”Britain has become the center for the meeting of anti-Semitic trends in Europe.” The sharp rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic attacks in Britain has been reported every year since 2005.

So.. if the British hate me and my family just because we are Jewish why should I support them, their businesses and their economy? If the British hate Israel, where much of my family lives, with a passion, why on earth would I want to send my hard earned money to that dispicable country? I'd rather buy American or Israeli products. When it comes to products that aren't made or grown in the U.S. Or Israel, like tea, then I'll support almost anybody else before I'll support the UK. I'm enjoying a wonderful cup of Blooming apricot flavored black tea from China right now.

Please follow the links I've provided and read up on this for yourself. If you're Jewish, a supporter of Israel, or just plain think that anti-Semitism is as disgusting as any other form of ethnic or religious intolerance or racism, please join me in this boycott.