Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Bring on the naked laptops

If we’re serious about using technology to empower users, people should have the choice to buy a laptop, tablet or smartphone without the software.

This is my new laptop. Observant readers will notice that this is a Chromebook running Ubuntu on it. As Linux fans know, Ubuntu and most other Linux distributions can be legally downloaded for free and installed on any computer. The only question is what computer you choose. For me, a Chromebook seemed like a good bet: they are cheap low-spec laptops, probably incapable of running Windows 7, but Ubuntu is a resource-light operating system and I use my desktop for anything resource-intensive. Chrome OS is heavily geared towards users of Google services, like GMail and Google Docs, but I’m installing my own software so that doesn’t matter. So, let’s buy a Chromebook and install Ubuntu. Simple, huh? Simple?

Hah, I wish! You have no idea how much blood, sweat and tears I’ve been through to get to what you can see in that photo. It all boils down to this thing on Chromebooks called secure boot (aka verified boot). Oh boy. This is something that, in theory, is meant to protect you from hackers up to no good – I have used the words “in theory” for a reason, but I’ll come back to that later. As far as Chromebooks are concerned, there is a way of switching off secure boot by going into “developer mode” (which isn’t advertised widely, but if the intention is to prevent people fiddling with settings who don’t know what they’re doing, that’s fair enough). Unfortunately, even in this mode, you still can’t boot from a CD/USB drive, which is the normal way of installing an operating system. Never mind, there’s an Ubuntu derivative out there called Chrubuntu, specially designed to be downloaded and installed from a command prompt in Chrome OS. Okay, that doesn’t sound too bad.