Friday, August 29, 2008

Business Opportunity for a Linux Geek

In a recent post, I discussed my attempts to select among subnotebook models. It occurs to me that my problems could be someone else's profit.

The Acer Aspire One comes either with Linpus Lite and an 8GB flash disk, with Windows XP and a 120GB hard drive, or with Windows XP, 160GB, and a six cell battery. What I want is the 120GB model dual booting XP and Linux, probably Linpus, since Acer has presumably optimized their version for the machine. I expect there are other people who there who would like the 120GB or 160GB model with either Linpus or some other Linux.

It looks, from poking around the web, as though someone familiar with Linux could,with a little effort, convert the XP versions to either Linux or dual boot. Once the initial work of figuring out how to do it and preparing a suitable CD or flash disk had been done, doing it again should be very little work. I would happily pay $50 plus shipping cost for the service, and I expect that a significant number of other people would as well.

If I'm right, it's a business opportunity.


Ryan Lackey said...

The main problem with charging $50 to convert something to linux is you end up getting stuck supporting it after the fact, or people get angry.

(you can say "no warranty", etc., but no one's a little different with technical end users)

(where in the bay area has one of these? I wouldn't mind doing the actual work and maybe one or two conversions for people who do not expect lifetime free support for any linux or XP problem which arises...)

Anonymous said...

As a 'lunux geek' I agree that this would never be profitable, except for Acer. But, Acer's business is hardware, not software, so buyer beware. I've bought a number of devices that support a unique form of Linux and eventually, software support dies off and you have a paperweight. These subnotebooks are also too large to be truly portable and too tiny and underpowered to be that useful. Windows XP will be a disaster on one of theses things as well because of the tiny screen. If you can afford it, get a Blackberry or PDA cellphone with a Qwerty keyboard and a 12" Lenovo X200, X300 or X301; or Fujitsu notebook. Then you will have true pocketability and sufficient power and screen size and resolution.
Don't buy any Linux device unless ALL functions (especially wireless drivers) are supported by a major Linux distribution like Fedora or Ubuntu. The whole advantage of linux is the ability to do things yourself. Expecting that you will be able to pay $50 and have the thing work like a cellphone or toaster is folly.
I would strongly advise you to get two of the most powerful batteries possible or you'll regret it...

David Friedman said...

In response to Ryan ... . I don't yet have an Acer Aspire, but I expect to buy one sometime in the next month or so, assuming nothing better comes out in the meanwhile. I'm in San Jose.

One problem with the Linpus version of my project is that I don't know where one would get the install disk for the Acer version of Linpus--they apparently don't come with the Linpus/flash version of the computer. Presumably there is some way of getting the relevant files off a Linpus Aspire, if one knows somebody who has one.

Of course, some other Linux install wouldn't raise that problem, and might be better in other ways--but I gather it's a little tricky to make sure that everything, including WiFi, works with a particular combination of software and hardware.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous argues against netbooks. As it happens, I already have a MacBook and a Nokia 9300, which is about as good a cell phone/pda combination as seems to be available at this point. If I had something much better--the Android phone that T-mobile is supposedly going to release might qualify--I would be less interested in a subnotebook.

On the other hand, I own an Asus eee 900, which I just sent off with my daughter to college, so I have some experience with subnotes. My only serious reservation on that was the keyboard, and the Aspire has a much better one.

For most of what I do other than World of Warcraft, the screen and processing power and storage of the Aspire should be more than adequate--word processing and email don't make very serious demands on modern computers. The screen size and keyboard are much better than anything I can fit in my pocket, even my old and long abandoned Psions. The size and weight are a lot better than my MacBook.

Ryan Lackey said...

I'd go with an X301 as well, if you're not so sensitive to cost. For a mac user, I'd wait until after the Apple conference, though...

For me, ExpressCard is a requirement (I have an EVDO ExpressCard for 3G data; buying separate 3G subscriptions for each machine for integrated 3G would get very expensive, and I don't like to rely on wifi when mobile). I guess you could bluetooth tether to a phone.

The new Asus N10 or Lenovo S10 might be better, too. Bigger, but expresscard, and a better keyboard than the Acer from what I've heard.

Once you exceed "fits in my pocket", I have to carry my laptop shoulder bag, which is sized for a 17" laptop, all my other stuff, food, first aid supplies, etc. Light weight, functonality, and long battery life are then more important than volume, so something in the X301 class wins. I think realistically the largest machine I could carry in a pocket all the time is a psion 5mx-sized palmtop, and an android or iphone + bluetooth folding keyboard probably is the best in that role.

The main role I see for netbooks is where you're highly sensitive to unit cost (due to not using it often, risk of loss or damage, or needing to buy a lot of them). A satellite BGAN terminal + netbook (optimized for low bandwidth use) would be a great tool for camping, for instance. Or, for leaving in the bathroom or kitchen, or for guests to use, etc.

If a netbook is the best thing for you, and you get one, I could probably put linux on it for you (I'm in Palo Alto, know Patri, etc.) -- should check on the specific model to make sure drivers exist before buying it. The Acers are definitely ok but not optimal for driver support; under most non-acer linux the power management doesn't work as well, physical wifi switch might not be supported, etc.

David Friedman said...

To Ryan. Thanks for the offer. I may get back to you when I actually have the machine.

David Friedman said...

It turns out, not surprisingly, that I'm not the first person to think of this idea. There's an offer of services up on eBay along the general lines I suggest, specializing in installing XP on an eee, but with a variety of other services as well, including dual boot installation.

Unfortunately, the provider is in the Philippines, so I probably won't use his services, although there is the possibility of emailing him a SD card and having him send it back with some flavor of Linux installed.

I know nothing about the quality of his service, but it doesn't seem terribly expensive, once you do the currency conversion.

Anonymous said...

The problem is this: you offer to pay $50 to someone who makes your computer dual booting XP - that means, you pay Microsoft $200 for an environment you can use World of Warcraft in.

Microsoft is deeply involved in monopolistic business practices against both their users, and both GNU/Linux users - that means, it is really hard to buy a computer *without* Windows, and also, it is really-really hard to get hardware support for some devices with Linux because of specific contracts between Microsoft and hardware vendors, notebook companies and dealers. Supporting this company with $200 means supporting the enemy of freedom.

On the other hand, if you plan to use WoW, you can also offer someone $50 to make WoW run on your Linux computer. You can also offer $100, and you are still better in the situation with $150 remaining in your pocket.

Asking Blizzard for a Linux version of WoW also could be beneficial both for you, and for other WoW fans. Why is it, that there is no Linux version of WoW? For example, EVE has one. Asking for such features is showing that there would be market for it. And the story is also about your freedom.

David Friedman said...

"that means, you pay Microsoft $200 for an environment you can use World of Warcraft in."

That is not the case. The subnotebook I'm considering, the Acer Aspire One, comes in both Linux and XP models. The Linux model has an 8GB flash disk, the XP model has a 120GB hard disk, and according to reviewers the hard disk is at least as fast as the flash disk. The XP model lists for about $30 more than the Linux model. I would pay that $30 for the hard drive even if I were planning to replace XP with Linux instead of dual booting. XP costs me nothing, Linux costs me nothing, the only cost is someone's time and trouble to install Linux--possibly mine, possibly someone else's.

The simplest way at the moment, I gather, is to use Wabi to install Ubuntu on the same partition that XP is on, thus avoiding all the complication of repartitioning the disk. I'll probably start by doing that, since it is supposed to be easy. It may or may not raise problems with missing drivers for some of the hardware, and if it does I may or may not be able to solve them.

And, of course, XP doesn't only give me WoW. It also gives me access to any other program that doesn't run under Linux and does under Windows.

Incidentally, I tried to use WINE on my Asus eee 900 (which has now gone off to college with my daughter) to run WoW and was unsuccessful.

Unknown said...

I don't think it would be overly difficult to get a dual-boot setup on an Aspire One with a hard drive. If Linpus can't be obtained, there are other distros that claim to work.

I've had some success running WoW under linux with various versions of wine. If you want an easy route to do so, I would suggest Transgaming's Cedega, or Codeweaver's CrossOver Games.

Both are built on top of Wine, but streamline and automate things for you. If I remember right you can get Cedega for around $15, and Crossover for $40-50.

My experience with running WoW under linux though has always been that I expend a fair amount of effort to get it to run with maybe 80% of the performance I get under Windows. Despite my desire to run primarily linux on my desktop, I usually find myself returning to Windows for gaming.

I would be rather surprised if WoW would run well on an Aspire One, let alone under Wine. The Intel Graphics Chipset is not a good performer for that kind of gaming.

If you take the plunge and decide to have a go at it let me know. I'd be willing to setup the dual-boot for you if you are willing to ship it to Kansas.

Andrew said...

The prebuilt linux hardware business model was hot in 1997-2000, but died with the dot com crash. It was a promising business model because at the time linux installation took some tweaking and careful hardware selection. As linux usage grew, hardware drivers got better and installation became easier.

Your idea isn't an unusual one. The difficulty with making it a business is that it has nothing proprietary. Someone can easily follow what you've done as it's pretty simple. Most "how to set up [brand/model] laptops" are written as free documentation. At best it can be offered as a one-off consulting service; there are plenty of linux consultants who would be happy to make these changes for you, but at a much higher cost than $50.

Furthermore, most linux users are heavily invested in one particular distribution of linux, and many would prefer to set it up themselves, especially now that it's not terribly difficult (some linux distribution installers even support non-destructive repartitioning of windows disks).

Most linux users would also probably prefer a virtual machine solution, with a windows VM running on top of linux--people don't like waiting for reboots.

Companies with large linux laptop installations will further ease the install process with automated install systems like FAI, kickstart, ghost.

Unknown said...
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