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Linux and recalcitrant laptop modems. First, a correction: numerous readers wrote in (see the letters to the editor section) regarding last week's article on the "Red Hat compatible" certification of IBM's Thinkpad 600E. We stated that the Thinkpad contains a "WinModem," it turns out that (1) "WinModem" is a trademarked term, and (2) the Thinkpad does not have one. The Thinkpad modem, instead, is based on Lucent's DSP chipset, which has a reasonably well understood interface.
Thus, it is an encouraging development that a partial driver for Lucent-based modems now exists. This driver, announced by Pavel Machek, also contains a lot of work by Jamie Lokier and "Richard". The driver, thus far, is able to open the modem, dial it, and send and received sounds. In other words, it is, at this point, a sound card with a telephone interface.
What is left is the implementation of a v34 stack to turn the sound card into a modem. This is not a trivial exercise. It is, however, in the works: see Fabrice Bellard's soft modem page for more information. Having a free software modem implementation will make another class of hardware available on Linux systems. But it also will raise some other intriguing possibilities: for example, why not tweak the protocol to allow for higher-bandwidth connections between Linux systems?
The "LinModem" drivers will be an outstanding contribution to Linux, once they are ready. Getting there has been a long process, fighting against undocumented interfaces, proprietary standards, and difficult protocols. This development has been a long, tedious and thankless task, but it is beginning to bear some fruit. The developers of the LinModem code are to be congratulated for their persistence and skills; this is the sort of quality work that our free operating system was built on. Thanks are also due to SuSE, which has been supporting some of this work.
More new distributions ... but with a difference. A year ago, there were a lot of Linux distributions. However, only a few of them were actually commercial. They now form the list of some of the best known distributions: Red Hat Linux, Caldera OpenLinux, and SuSE Linux. There were plenty of other distributions out there, with Slackware Linux and Debian GNU/Linux being extremely popular as well. The majority of these, however, were not commercial. Some of them could be called "hobby" distributions, essentially built and maintained by one or two people, for their own purposes, and distributed without cost or revenue via the web.
The landscape has been changing for a while. With the advent of distributions such as Linux-Mandrake, TurboLinux and Conectiva Linux, it has been shown that new companies can make a mark in the industry with their own distribution. Now we are seeing that precedent grown into another explosion of distribution announcements, but the announcements are looking different these days.
This week saw the release of at least three new distributions. We heard about these distributions through slick press releases, not through word of mouth or notes from our readers. EMJ-Linux is an embedded Linux distribution, joining the pack that includes Caldera/Lineo, Hard Hat Linux and LEM. In this case, the release of a Linux distribution seems to be a way to mark yourself as a contender in the field, demonstrating the technical abilities of your staff and your expertise through the release of a Linux distribution.
Also released this week was WinLinux 2000, "The first Linux for Windows users." This editor had to scan the website carefully to make sure that this wasn't another humorous poke at Microsoft Windows, like the April Fools' jokes we've seen in previous years. No, it is a real distribution and they clearly want to capitalize on the name similarity to encourage current Microsoft Windows customers to choose them when they want to try Linux out. The software installs without any disk partitioning and shows up as an installed software package under Windows.
Last, we have LinuxOne OS from LinuxOne. Read through this web site and you'll see the list of officers that put this company together. They've got lots of experience with company startups, but no mention of any history working with Linux prior to their formation. They are ambitious, too: "We are committed to be your OneStop on-line supplier for all of your Linux needs."
How will they distinguish themselves from other distributions? "The Company's extensions to the Linux software kernel will rapidly distinguish its products from all other available Linux software. " What do they mean by that? Here's a bit more detail: "A key feature of LinuxOpen is its ability to run on the most advanced PC workstations with devices that increase communication bandwidth, such as ADSL and cable modem. LinuxOne will support these new technologies with its sophisticated proprietary device drivers (software that provides an interface between an operating environment and its associated hardware)." In other words, proprietary software is part of their approach to the Linux market.
Commercial, commercial, commercial. New distributions appear to be flying out thick and furious. This fulfills predictions we've made, but while we expected to see more localized distributions as Linux moved in all over the world, all three of these distributions are starting in the United States, in English. Apparently many people feel there is a lot of money to be made and they are willing to give it a try.
Now for our mini-editorial: As new distributions flourish, one danger is the fragmentation they can cause to the Linux community. Our safeguards against fragmentation are free software and the Linux Standard Base. When you go to choose a new distribution, make sure it supports the Linux Standard Base, to secure a future where applications can work on any Linux system. Beware of proprietary software, including hardware drivers. Hardware drivers tend to break with the release of new versions of the kernel, leaving you at the mercy of a company's release cycle to get your drivers working again. Proprietary software in general can lead to fragmentation. Recognize and reward the efforts of commercial distributions that have chosen to release the source code for their internal developments under open source licenses. Recent example include Caldera's release of their Lizardinstaller, MandrakeSoft's release of their disk partitioner, DiskDrake and many others.
Linux on embedded systems will be an undercurrent at next week's Embedded Systems Conference being held in San Jose, California. LWN's Liz Coolbaugh will be there for the last two days of the conference to provide some personal reports, so stay tuned.
Linux hardware certification was discussed last week. We have since been informed that we left out a couple of other hardware certification efforts:
Loki Hack '99: Loki Entertainment Software, in conjunction with the Atlanta Linux Showcase, will be picking 30 developers to turn loose on the Civilization: Call To Power source for two days - they can add whatever features they want. See Loki's press release and articles in Next Generation and GameSpot.
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September 23, 1999