Interview: Brad Linder Talks Linux and Ultraportable Computers

by Ostatic Staff - Sep. 03, 2008

Ultraportable computers are springing up everywhere as mainstream computer hardware vendors like HP scramble to compete with companies like Asus and MSI for market share. From his vantage point as editor-in-chief of Liliputing, a popular Web site devoted to ultraportable computers, Brad Linder gets to watch all the action in this new niche. We caught up with Linder to see why he thinks open source software is crucial to the advancement of ultraportables and where liliputers are going from here.

OStatic: How did you come up with the term "Liliputer"?

There's currently no accepted term for low cost ultraportable computers. They're certainly different from mainstream laptops in that they're smaller, lighter, and usually have less processing power and a lower price tag. But they're different from most UMPCs in that they have keyboards and typically have 7 inch or larger display.

Intel likes to call this new class of device "netbook," since the company assumes that the primary use of these laptops is for accessing the Web. But VIA, a chip-maker with a competitive reason for avoiding Intel's terminology calls them mini-notebooks. When I started Liliputing, I wanted to come up with a name that wouldn't be tied to a single marketing term tied to a computer model or chip. My colleague Grant Robertson of Download Squad suggested Liliputing as a way to describe what all of these computers have in common, and the name stuck.

OStatic: What do you think accounts for the surge in the production and sales of ultraportables?

Brad Linder: There's been a strong interest in portable computers for decades. In the late 90s companies like HP, NEC, and Psion pumped out tiny palmtop computers that ran stripped down operating systems like Windows CE or EPOC. These devices were extremely portable, got long battery life, and had instant on/off capabilities. But they were also limited by their light weight operating systems and hardware. You couldn't run full-fledged desktop applications so you were stuck with Web browser, Office suites, and other applications that were often second-rate at best.

In the last few years, I think tiny computing has diverged in two separate directions. Cell phones have taken on many of the features that were once the territory of PDAs and palmtops. At the same time, laptop manufacturers have been able to make smaller, lighter computers that are capable of holding their own against full-sized notebooks or even desktops.

And then Nicholas Negroponte and the OLPC project showed that smaller doesn't always have to mean more expensive. The XO Laptop was designed for the developing world. But it is revolutionary because it combines a low price, durability, small size, and acceptable performance. Asus was the first company to realize there would be plenty of customers for similar computers in the developed world. And the company has sold millions of Eee PC models with price tags ranging from $299 to $699 over the past year, which would seem to indicate that Asus was correct. In the brief period since Asus first introduced the Eee PC, many more companies have gotten in on the action and now there are dozens of notebooks with 10-inch screens and $600 or lower price tags available.

OStatic: How has Linux and open source software has helped the low cost ultraportable market succeed?

Brad Linder:When you're trying to bring down the price of a computer, there are many areas you can focus on. There are the materials used in the case, the size and resolution of the display, the type of storage used (solid state disk or hard drive), and the CPU. But there's also the software. Most computers ship with Windows, and that means the manufacturer had to pay for a Windows license. While not every single Linux distro is available free of charge, it's generally much less expensive to slap Ubuntu, Xandros, Mandriva, or Linpus Linux Lite on a notebook than Windows XP or Vista.

Microsoft has struck back by offering deeply discounted versions of Windows XP to ULPC (Ultra Low Cost PC) makers. But when you're trying to bring the price of your product down below $400, every little bit helps. And if you have a choice between preloading a $30 version of Windows XP or a free version of Ubuntu, which would you choose?

OStatic: Which Linux distros are best suited for liliputers?

Brad Linder:Desktop Linux operating systems have come a long way in the last few years, making them a more viable option for users who don't know the first thing about Linux. But it's still a bit tricky to explain package management or compiling software from source to someone who's never used Linux. If you're a Linux nerd and you're comfortable around a command line, you can run pretty much any Linux distro on most of the popular liliputers like the Eee PC, MSI Wind, or HP Mini-Note.

However some companies have settled on a sort of Linux-for-dummies approach that makes a tiny notebook feel more like an appliance than a computer. If you're buying a liliputer for someone who's maybe a bit less tech savvy than you, you might want to consider lookin at the Asus Eee PC which runs a custom version of Xandros with an "easy mode" interface, or the Acer Aspire One which uses Linpus Linux Lite. Both operating systems forego the typical taskbar and start menu. Instead you get large icons for frequently used programs like Firefox, and Skype, divided into tabs for things like Internet, Work, and Play.

OStatic: What do you think is the bigger draw for consumers, the features a liliputer has or what operating system it runs?

Brad Linder:Definitely the features. That's because unlike early palmtops like the NEC MobilePro 790 or HP Jornada 728, liliputers are full-fledged computers with standard processors, storage, and RAM. In other words, while there were certainly brave folks who attempted to hack the MobilePro or Jornada to run Linux with mixed results, the Asus Eee PC, ECS G10IL, and other liliputers are more than capable of running almost any operatiing system.

I've heard of people installing virtually every flavor of Linux imaginable on one liliputer or another. That includes PCLinuxOS, Debian, Fedora, and Ubuntu. Some folks have even installed Solaris, Syllable, and OS X.

While some people might decide to choose a tiny notebook because it runs one operating system or another, I suspect that there are plenty of folks who plan to buy one and immediately swap out the preloaded OS for their favorite.

OStatic:From a usability standpoint, where do ultraportables still need to improve?

Brad Linder:You need to make certain sacrfiices if you want to cram all the major components of a full-sized laptop into a pint sized case. If you want a large, high-resolution display, or a nearly full sized keyboard, you need a larger case. And that typically means a heavier computer that will be a bit harder to slide into a purse. But if you focus exclusively on portability, you might wind up with a keyboard that is difficult to type on or a screen that is too small for many applications or Web pages.

Early liliputers like the Asus Eee PC 701 and the Everex Cloudbook had 7 inch, 800 x 480 pixel displays. And after a while, they began to drive me mad, since most Web sites I visit are wider than 800 pixels. The cramped keyboards on these devices were also usable, but just barely so. Right now I'm typing away on an Asus Eee PC 1000H. It has a 10.2 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display and a larger keyboard. It's much more comfortable to use, but it also weighs 3.2 pounds, over a pound more than the 701.

Ultimately I'd like to see laptops that offer the best of both worlds: lightweight, and decent sized keyboards and displays. It's certainly possible. The MSI Wind's screen is the same size as the Eee PC 1000H, but the computer weighs just 2.6 pounds. I dream of a day when all liliputers are 2 pounds or less. But I'm not holding my breath.

Many laptop makers are also including components because they seem to think they should, not because they work well. For example, the HP Mini-Note ships with a 1.3MP Webcam. But the video quality you get from that camera is absolutely horrible thanks to the computer's other underpowered hardware such as a sluggish VIA C7-M CPU.

OStatic: What do you predict will be the Next Big Thing for ultraportables?

Brad Linder:A lot of folks would probably say touchscreens. But I think touchscreens are overrated when it comes to clamshell style computers. Let the tablet PCs and UMPCs keep their touchscreens. I'd rather have a keyboard any day. I think the most important innovations for low cost ultraportable computers will continue to be in the CPU space.

This summer, Intel released the 1.6GHz Atom processor which consumes less power than the 900Mhz Intel Celeron chip used in the original Eee PC 701. At the same time, it provides a bit of a performance boost. The Eee PC 901, 1000, and 1000H all use the newer processor and do a much better job with online video and other CPU intensive tasks than the 701, all while providing 2-3 times the battery life of the original Eee PC.

VIA is expected to release its answer to the Atom, the Nano processor soon. Early reports seem to indicate that the Nano will do at least as good a job as the Atom at cutting power usage while boosting performance.

In the future, we may see low power dual core processors which further blur the performance line between liliputers and laptops.