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Zipped wav and Crossing the Digital Divide

August 7, 2006

My major workhorse machine at work continues to be the one on the network running Mepis 3.3. I am gradually growing more comfortable with it and growing into it. But make no mistake; there is a learning curve.

One of the most fundamental yet frustrating things in an operating system is the file structure. Linux uses a file structure that to a Windows user looks kind of goofy. There are folders and subfolders, just like windows, but they have funny names and some are just slashes or dots. The names on the folders don’t always make sense, and it takes time to find things.

Today’s task involved finding and downloading zipped .wav files for some thinks I’ll be making for students using power point. I could be in for an interesting experience, there. Of course, the school has almost every entertainment site blocked, so getting really good wav files was more difficult. But I found a place that had a few sound effects and clips that I could download for free and was not blocked.

When downloading with this version of Firefox, it does not tell me where the file went. So I had to go hunting. This is where I discovered that /home folder listed under the user name. Once I found my files, I could create a folder and name it anything I wanted and store the stuff there. Unzipping was interesting. It works sort of like Windows where you tell it where to unpack the thing that is zipped. I wanted to do a bunch of them at the same time, and it ended up opening up about 3 identical windows for each zipped file! That was just annoying. But it did get the job done.

Playing the sounds was also tricky. The default player is XMMS, but I never succeeded in getting that to play a single one. However, Mepis (3.3) comes with Audacity, which had no problems playing the clips. This is why I like this version so well, because if one application doesn’t do the job, there is another one that just might. And this version of Mepis came full of applications.

I did try Mepis 6.0 on my machine at home with the live CD. It came with the exact same KPPP program the other releases came with and so there were no improvements as far as me getting online using a modem. This lack of modem support is a big deal, in my opinion. Linux is poised to be an OS that could take P2’s and P3 PC’s and give them a new lease on life for individuals who can not afford cutting edge technology. Right now, NONE of the parents of my students have a computer. ALL of them would like to have one, but the only way they will get one is if someone gives them one. Supposing someone gives them a P2 running Win98. They can play games, but what about something as basic as email? What options do they have? They can run Win98 until it becomes clogged and crippled with malware or do…what?

In the U.S., where not everyone has access to broadband or can afford it, dial-up is still widely used. Having a computer without internet access is like having a car that can’t leave the driveway. So what happens to all these folks on the wrong side of the digital divide? They are either going to scrape up the $299 or whatever to buy a cheap Sempron machine pre-loaded with Windows or they will continue to do without one. Either way, the Linux community loses. Remember, the community wants Linux loaded on as many machines as possible, right? In order to encourage more software development, more drivers ported to Linux and more hardware development. These poorer users would be an ideal consumer base that has not been tapped into sufficiently. They would LOVE to get online, and be able to email teachers and relatives, just like their wealthier counterparts. But the obstacle is a $15 piece of hardware called a modem.

I’m under the impression that the Linux community is following along with Mac and Windows in leaving the poor folk behind by making a broadband connection almost mandatory in order to make the OS work. Downloading a mess of Windows updates gets more and more challenging. Downloading huge files is VERY painful over a dial-up connection. How would I fare downloading IE 7 over a dial-up? Or how about the Vista Beta? This is why downloading distros is such an ordeal and why there are not as many people taking advantage as could otherwise. I’ll give Ubuntu some props there, for making things easier for the average Joe until they want to do anything other than write and print documents, email and surf the web. But again, the poorer users are not going to get even that far if the modem isn’t going to work from the outset.

And that is really what I would like to find: an OS that would make these piles of P3’s sitting around useful again for this group of folks who are still not able to take advantage of the technology the rest of us enjoy. The world is changing, and not being able to get online makes life harder for certain people, especially people like the parents of my students who all have severe disabilities. Even a trip to the doctor is a major ordeal if you have to strap a child into his wheelchair, wheel him to a van with a lift, open the door, deploy the lift, put the chair on it, lift him up, secure the chair, fold the lift, drive to the store, deploy the lift again, untie the chair, get it on the lift, lower the lift, get the chair off the lift, fold the lift back in, go in the store and do business, come out, deploy the lift again, get the chair on, lift, tie it down again, fold the lift, drive home, deploy the lift….

You get the idea? That is just one simple trip, and assumes no behavioral problems or tubes or wires to manage. Yes, they would still have to go to the doctor, but could they have better sources of support in an online community? Doing things online and even being able to socialize online would be a major benefit so such parents. Finding services and accessing those services is so much easier online. But the ones who need it the most have the least access to it.

Linux could be the OS that could provide an inexpensive, stable, secure solution for such people. 90% of the technology is right there and readily accessible on the cheap or free, but it is that last bit that is making up the biggest barrier. Find me the solution to the modem problem and I’ll find you some new Linux users.

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10 comments

  1. Dick, I think you’re asking the right question to the wrong side. You see, I don’t think it’s the Linux community that is going to solve your modem problem, but the manufacture of that modem. He is the one that should publish all the specs for the device and, if possible, the module itself. What can you do? Get your modem, go back to the shop where you bought it and return it as unusable (and hope the manufacture gets the point) and then get another modem that is Linux compatible. I would recommend an external one (serial if possible) they usually work with no problems and you can buy them cheap second hand.

    Cheers!


  2. That’s not going to cut it. At all. Manufacturers are driven by profit, and right now the margin on a modem is probably pretty slim. The point is that there are many modems sitting around doing nothing in machines with an obsolete OS. I have one on a shelf collecting dust right now and is I buy a serial modem, I’ll have 2!

    If the Linux community wants to leverage marketshare, they need to get more users. There is an untapped market of thousands and millions of potential users. Corporations, who put out much open source software, don’t use dial-up so they have little interest in developing this technology themselves.

    Looking at the software array marketed through EVERY Linux distro, it is geared towards someone who has modest needs: internet surfing, email, pictures, documents which is precisely the type pf people I know who would take the plunge at the right price point (practivcally zero). They are not into computers and have no real loyalty towards one OS or another as long as it works. These are the super nongeeks that might have used a computer in school a few times but took typing back when they still used type wroters.

    dick


  3. Hum… There’s one question then: How do you make the manufactures release the specs on they’re products or make them produce the necessary modules, so that it will ever work in Linux? Even the most well intentioned programmer cannot fight the lack of specs. I have a USB frame grabber that as a module working with it and the author says that it cannot do more than 320×240 images because the manufacture does not release the necessary information so that he could grab higher resolution pictures. Do I blame the open source community for this (technically you cannot blame Linux as it’s only the kernel)? Don’t think so…

    Paulo.


  4. Hmmm. Releasing the specs, huh? That’s interesting and it seems to me that with modems becoming more and more obsolete…why don’t they release them? Maybe because they are hoping someone will pay for them. Thanks for filling me in. As a non-engineer I have no appreciation for the actual work that goes into this sort of thing. All I know is that my printer and monitor work just fine with Linux, but my modem won’t. The network card works, but the modem won’t. It’s difficult for a non-tech person like me to wrap his mind around that sort of thing. How can a modem be so much more complicated than a printer or anything else I hook up?

    Seems like someone could come up with a better deal.

    dick


  5. Well, the truth is that it can! πŸ™‚
    First, let me say that in no way am I giving out to you or anything like that. I appreciate your blog, as I am building my 100pc Linux home (no windows aloud except with glass!) and I enjoy to give my 2Ct’s too. Second, I have a few years experience with Linux so I can give a tip or two about it.
    Last but not least, you say that you are not very techie so I will try to make things as clear as possible, so forgive me if I go too far on the explanations. No insult intended! πŸ™‚
    That said, let’s go to the point. To make a peace of hardware work you need, most of the times, a peace of software that communicates between the OS and the hardware itself. That is called a driver or module. Hardware producers create the boards and the drivers to work with them. When you get something to work on Windows, most of the time MS didn’t do anything about it. I’m sure you have encounter a yellow triangle in your Windows device manager a couple of times. That usually means that the OS detected the hardware but no drivers are installed. You don’t go back to the shop because of that do you? No, you just install the driver (produced by the manufacture) and Bob’s your uncle, it works! If the manufacture would produce the module for Linux, you would have the same experience. But they don’t as it does not pay off and, sometimes, they don’t let anyone else do it either. So, the Linux community has two options: attempt to create a module by trial and error or try to reverse engineer the windows driver.
    In your case, I bet that you have what it’s called a Softmodem (check wikipedia, too long to explain where) that are very cheap to produce. Not all of them are supported in Linux (check linmodems.org). On the other hand, most of the traditional serial modems (not to say all because there a a few weird ones) are supported because they have the controller on the hardware (instead of the software) and utilize the “standard” serial drivers to communicate. By the way, nowadays there are some printers that use the same principle as softmodems and are not that easy to get to work with Linux either.
    If you let me know, using lspci on the terminal window, what modem you have (PCI ID) I could try to help you get it to work.
    That what the community of Linux is all about. There is a price for MS freedom. πŸ™‚
    Hope this helps!


  6. I’ll let you know when I get a chance to check it out.

    In the meantime, there are a slew of serial external modems for sale on ebay. Most of them are one particular model (I think Actiontec) that is either serial or USB. Anyone know if this is a likely candidate for use with Linux?

    dick


  7. Hi!

    Just checked the modem you mention and by the specs I belieave it will work fine as a serial modem, and maybe even as USB (nor sure there). Because it uses Industry Standard AT Command Set and Extended AT Commands I am sure it will work. As long as there is nothing wrong with the modem I am willing to put my money where my mouth is and promise your money back if it does not. I know you dont know me so it’s hard to get a garantee, so you’ll have to trust a perfect stranger on this one. πŸ™‚

    I say, give it a go and let us know!

    Cheers!


  8. Hi Dick,

    I just learned that Freespire (www.freespire.org) is now available. It’s the free brother of Linspire. From the website:
    “Freespire is a community-driven, Linux-based operating system that combines the best that free, open source software has to offer (community driven, freely distributed, open source code, etc.), but also provides users the choice of including proprietary codecs, drivers and applications as they see fit.”
    Also, “[freespire] Is powerful enough for the most sophisticated Linux user or developer, yet easy enough for someone completely new to Linux.”
    On the list of proprietary codecs and drivers they include some softmodems as you can see here (http://wiki.freespire.org/index.php/Summary_of_Proprietary_Components).
    So, if you can download the 686 MB file, why not give it a try?
    I will try it my self too, but I’m not sure if it will be a Mepis killer. Could be a good Kubuntu killer thought…

    Cheers!


  9. […] At the recommendation of a commenter identifying himself as Paulo, I decided to burn a Freespire CD. Freespire met my initial criteria of being a live CD and being free. I’ve heard of Linspire before and have had more than one person comment here that is was a good, easy distro. Since I had one successful experience burning a CD and getting it to boot, I decided to try my luck again. It’s nice having access to a speedy connection at work. […]


  10. Ah, the beloved chicken-and-the-egg scenario we run into.

    But really, as is frequently said, people don’t go out and buy software/hardware for an Apple Macintosh and expect it to work on their latest Dell. If they do they quickly learn otherwise. So why does everyone expect than Linux can just “magically” work without replacing everything. Sorry, but until you understand the problem you are not fit to criticize the situation. Mostly because the battle is just too hard to fight without having F.U.D. slingers in the mix. Propaganda control. :~)

    And lastly, the corporations want Linux to break mainstream. The developers just want to make something better/interesting with the exception of the idealists who work on the non-entertaining projects like gcc. The users with the exception of the zealots, just want to be able to do their task, and whether everyone else uses it is irrelevent. After all more people means more corporate which means more pressure which means less fun.

    Anyways, I know what you mean about dial-up to an extent. We only just got ADSL out where I am, and previously I had 56K. Interestingly to some, I still ran Gentoo Linux ~x86 – possibly the one distro requiring the largest download amounts. And most of the people I help out around here still use dial-up. But they have no problem with buying an external serial modem for $5-$20 and just leaving the old internal winmodem to me… as a result I’ve got quite the collection of winmodems.



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