Bits from the Eee PC team, Spring 2009

Lenny well supported

We’re pleased that Lenny released with good support for the Eee PC and are now turning our efforts to make Squeeze even better, while continuing to provide support for our Lenny user base.  The standard Lenny installer can install Debian on all models of Eee and our custom installer provides the ability to install over wireless for almost every model (more about this later) from a very small image.  The latter continues to be our recommended install method, since in addition to being wireless-ready, the custom installer also handles a few other small eee-specific configuration chores to make as much as possible “just work” right after the install.

Solid mainstream support

We’ve made good on our promise to make Debian work on the Eee PC, not a derivative, many of which use a custom kernel instead of the stock kernel as we do and use a special desktop instead of our users’ favourites.  While we agree that some intriguing things can be done in these areas, it is no substitute for mainstream support.  Our users are better served by a solid foundation than specialised modifications that limit their choices.  We want them to be able to enjoy the freedom to mold Debian, the universal OS, into whatever suits them best.

Squeeze support started

Work is well underway on supporting all Eee models in Squeeze.  For months, several team members have been experimenting with new kernels, producing support for them in eeepc-acpi-scripts.  The current release of this key package (version 1.1.0) supports Linux 2.6.29 and contains enhancements for wifi, sound hotkeys, bluetooth, external displays and OSD.

Squeeze will support wired & wifi on all current models

With the appearance of 2.6.29 in Sid, all ethernet and wifi cards used in all models of Eee today are supportable without the need for out-of-kernel or non-free drivers.  Madwifi is replaced by the free ath5k driver, the non-free rt2860 package is replaced by mainstream kernel support, (though it still requires non-free firmware provided separately by firmware-linux — for now in 2.6.29, the firmware is included in the kernel, but that is a bug fixed in 2.6.30,) rtl8187se is included, making it possible now for us to support the model 701SD, and ath9k is included, making full support for newer models such as the 1000HE possible.

Lenny backports and live demo

All of these changes can be enjoyed today by Lenny users.  Just add Daniel Baumann’s Lenny kernel backport repository and then install the 2.6.29 kernel and an updated acpid.  See our upgrade howto for details.  You can try a small (less than 256M) demo of this configuration by downloading beta 2 of our Live USB image.

Accessibility

Late last year, we discussed how to make it easier for the blind to install Debian unassisted on their Eee PCs.  As it was a simple change, we now include brltty in the custom installer, but we understand that some users also need software synthesized text-to-speech, something for which there is no support yet in the standard Debian-installer.  We understand this isn’t an easy thing to fix, but hope someone will rise to the challenge.

Growing team of developers

We welcome Darren Salt and Raphael Geissert to the team this year.  Both have been actively making contributions to the eeepc-acpi-scripts package over the past months, fixing some outstanding bugs and readying it to handle changes in more recent kernel releases.

Moved eeepc.debian.net to new hosting

Nico Golde, who hosted eeepc.debian.net for the first year development, has turned his focus to other areas of Debian.  Glenn Saberton has stepped in to provide a new home for it.  We thank them both for their efforts and for a smooth, uneventful transition from one host to the other.

Size of user community

Speaking of the move, earlier this year, Glenn shared with us some interesting archive traffic statistics that give us a rough idea how many users we have.  For the months of December and January, after factoring out bot hits, we were seeing about 300,000 hits from 15,000 unique users per month.  The site handles roughly 60G of traffic per month, most of that from thousands of downloads of our custom installer image.  It’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about the size of our user base from these stats, as many users may be on dynamic IP numbers, inflating the numbers, but we can conservatively say we have at least 5000 users.  Other interesting statistics are that we have anywhere up to 80 users at any given time on our irc channel and over 250 users on the mailing list.

Help wanted

The Asus Eee PC line continues to expand, with 24 models listed so far.  It is a challenge to keep up support for all of them.  We’re encouraged to see Asus choose a new b/g/n wifi chipset for their 1002HA that is supported by a DFSG free driver — ath9k in this case.  It appears that the new Atom N280-based 1000HE uses the same chipset as well (though be careful: I know of at least one user who bought a 1000HE in Argentina expecting it to have this chipset and was disappointed to find it had the Ralink chipset instead, we guess because of availability).  If this trend continues, we’ll be that much closer to our goal of full support for Squeeze main.  As it stands, we’re already as close as we can get given the state of rt2860 and no prospect on the horizon for replacing the non-free firmware.

If you would like to help us out in any way, whether by testing, debugging, patching, or improving our documentation, get in touch with our team.  We rely on your feedback to keep Lenny in good shape and work towards making Squeeze even better for all users of Debian on the Eee PC.

Involve kids in free software development through play

Giving up on a position within a free software project when you know you’re no longer managing to do an effective job is a wonderfully liberating experience. Now that I have started to talk with Miriam Ruiz about handing over the Debian Jr. project, I can stop worrying about the leadership task and just have fun with it.

I can always count on Miriam for recommendations for games in Debian my kids may enjoy, as she has a passion for finding good games to package for Debian, and in particular, games for children. Over the past few weeks we’ve had some fun with her picks. At the same time, I always have Debian Jr. in mind. How can we ensure kids can have the most fun with this? How do we equip their guides to help them?

What we’ve done with each new piece of software is to find a quiet time when one or more of the children can start playing with it on their own while we watch, offering such guidance as they need, but for the most part just letting them loose with it. Each wrinkle of the brow, each impetuous thump of the mouse, every illuminated grin and exclamation of delight is noted. We try to see what frustrates or pleases our kids and discuss it both with them and the Debian maintainers and upstream developers. This is an excercise we’ve managed to pull off without being overly intrusive and the results have been well worth the effort.

Using a few of Miriam’s picks we tried this week, we were able to draw their play into the free software development process. Here’s a brief summary of those sessions:

Platinum Arts Sandbox puts into children’s hands the ability to role play in a 3D world and edit that world using simplified controls. The expressions on the faces of our kids as they played were priceless: both the ups and the downs. I wanted to capture this on video and share it. After having established a rapport with upstream, we took a 20 minute clip of one of our play sessions and gave a copy to them to use to help further their work. Here is the edited result. They were very pleased to have that kind of feedback and found the video valuable for determining where the software still needed improvement and to notice which aspects particularly pleased the children.

I happen to know that Hex-a-hop is one of Miriam’s personal favourites. We have a household full of puzzle-lovers so this puzzle game was an instant hit. While on irc on #debian-jr with Miriam we relayed in real-time some of the reactions as they played this and a handful of her other picks. This gave her some confirmation of areas she knew needed work as well as inspiration for upcoming releases of these packages.

During this play session, which also included StegaVorto, kartofel, Anagramarama, Funny Boat and Vodovod, my youngest girl, age 7, plunked down on the couch next to me as her 10-year-old sister played. Then she started to notice I was typing what people in the livingroom were saying and doing on irc. She took a mild affront to me copying her own words and actions, so I decided it would be better to let her participate so she would feel included. At this point, I started playing secretary for her, typing what she dictated to me while she read the responses from the display. Later, I just handed her the keyboard so she could type and read the responses on her own. She was still at it long past bedtime and it was with some reluctance that she finally gave up the keyboard. We all had a lot of fun and look forward to doing this again.

We are particularly careful with privacy, taking care to share pictures, videos, and other personal details only so far as we believe it does not put our children at risk. Also, we need to ensure we observe in a way that is welcome and doesn’t interfere with their enjoyment. But with a little bit of prudence and a practiced eye and ear for what increases or diminishes enjoyment of the software, we can involve our children directly in the free software development process. I commend to anyone who has the privilege to share free software with children to use this method to communicate with maintainers and developers, increasing your own enjoyment of the software in the process and that of children and their guides everywhere.

Update: A quote from this article has made it to Slashdot. Although many of the comments seem to miss my point entirely, it’s nice to get a wider audience.