Some people are free software nuts.

Whereas I’m just a little fruity.

What I mean is there are those people who believe all software should be free, and that under no circumstances should one use non-free software for any reason whatsoever. Whilst in some ways that’s an admirable position to hold, never using any software or hardware where the source code is not entirely free. Where “free” in this case means ‘free to use, modify and re-distribute without any restriction’. Most software for the Linux platform that I choose to use on my desktop and laptop is free, so falls into this category. I am able to look at the source, modify it and redistribute that software. There are many devices and services that I use however that are non-free.

Looking around my house there are plenty of devices that contain non-free software. My two digital TV STB (set-top box), the TV itself, my MP3 player, the washing machine, microwave oven, Dolby Digital amplifier, satellite TV STB, mobile phone (symbian).. the list goes on. At work there is the PC running XP which I use at my current customer. It’s not mine, it belongs to the customer – honest!

Recently I decided to organise my life a little better with a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). I have owned them in the past but thought I’d treat myself to a new one.

My requirements of a PDA are pretty simple and probably fall in line with what most people would expect from such a device. I want one that has a great battery life so I am not replacing or charging the batteries regularly. I also want something that is fast, so quick that I can take it out of my pocket and use it instantly. I definately don’t want to have to wait for it to power up, come out of suspend mode or switch to the calendar application.

A range of applications should be available, and extra applications should be easily installable. The applications should be easy to use and should be optimised for the small screen present on most PDAs. I already have a laptop or two and a desktop or ten both at home and work, so a full-featured PC in my pocket isn’t necessary, just some basic note, time and contact management apps.

One of the most important tasks though is synchronisation. I should be able to backup the device to one or more of my computers. This is of course vital in a PDA that could be lost/stolen or have dead batteries causing data loss.There are other criteria, but those are some of the major ones.

In the distant past I have owned a Palm Pilot 5000, Palm III and more recently a Palm IIIx – all of them bought online, second hand. All of these use standard AAA batteries, which I want to steer away from. I’d like a device which has an internal battery and charges when plugged into either a cable or docking station / cradle. I’m rarely away from home for long, and wouldn’t want a PDA whose battery expires in that short time.

Right down at the bottom of lists of requirements is “Must run only on free software”. It’s at the bottom of the list because I am not free software nutty. I roughly know the PDA market. It consists of the Palm, Symbian and (Microsoft) Pocket PC platforms. There are also a very limited number of Linux PDAs and some palm-top computers such as the OQO. I already dismissed the palm-top computers as too bulky/powerful/slow/battery hungry.

In the end I decided to buy a new Palm TX. Obviously familiarity with the platform was a key factor. Also was the fact that I knew I could sync Palm based devices to my Linux desktop using free software.

So why did I go for a platform that clearly isn’t free – PalmOS? It’s quite simply the best platform for the job right now in my opinion. Of course many of the other (free and non-free) would probably fulfill most of the requirements, but I gravitated towards what I know, what I know works instead of being a free-software zealot and going for something free even if it means it won’t work as well as the opposition.

Every so often someone will ask if there’s a particular type of consumer electronic device that runs Linux (or other free software). I have seen people ask “Is there a PDA that runs Linux?” or “Is there a PVR (digital Personal Video Recorder) that runs Linux?”.

Most often the answer is “Yes, but the non-Linux alternatives right now are better.”. There are Linux-based options though. The Sharp Zaurus runs Linux and I believe it’s possible to run Linux on certain Compaq/HP iPaq devices. But if you want the best PDA type device there is, you’re likely to be disappointed by something other than Palm, Pocket PC or Symbian based device.

There are always those people who will cut off their nose to spite their face. They will almost religiously run free software because it’s the “right” thing to do. There is an argument that by buying a non-free PDA I am perpetuating the proprietary software model. I “should” be putting my free-software ideals first on this and every occasion. If that were true then I’d have to throw out the TV and all the other non-free devices in the house. I’m not about to do that, not yet anyway.

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