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8/3/2005
10:34 AM
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Fingerbang!

Update: I checked into the question of whether FingerGear provides source code for the Linux distro (a Debian variant) on its "Computer On A Stick" device. They do, in fact, provide the source code, upon request, to paying customers -- and as a newsletter reader reminded me, the GPL terms require a developer to supply the source only when it supplies the softw

Update: I checked into the question of whether FingerGear provides source code for the Linux distro (a Debian variant) on its "Computer On A Stick" device. They do, in fact, provide the source code, upon request, to paying customers -- and as a newsletter reader reminded me, the GPL terms require a developer to supply the source only when it supplies the software. In this case, of course, that means only paying customers are entitled to the source code.

This brings me back to the main point: The Computer-On-A-Stick, with or without source code, is absurdly overpriced at $149. We're talking about a 256MB USB drive worth less than $20 retail, running Linux and a collection of other free software along with a bit of proprietary (but hardly exotic) startup code. My guess is that it represents an effort to separate Windows users, who are accustomed to paying hundreds of dollars for OS and office software, from their money.

(That curious mix of pity, scorn, and glee that you're feeling at the moment, by the way, is known as Schadenfreude. Don't try to fight it.)Everyone else, as I noted in yesterday's newsletter, would be much better off buying their own USB drive at a more reasonable price (a roomier 512 MB drive costs around $50); installing a small-footprint distro, such as Puppy, or Damn Small Linux, or Feather; and treating yourself to one hell of a nice dinner with the $100 or so you'll save.

If, for some reason, you need to blow $149 as quickly as possible, at least get something for your money: Fingergear sells a version of its "Computer On A Stick" with a built-in fingerprint-scanning security device that also costs $149.

Finally, be aware that Fingergear ships the device in a permanently locked-down configuration: You can't access a computer's hard drives when you boot from the USB device, nor can you install any software or modify the current software on the device. Fingergear says it does this mostly to prevent malware-related problems, but that isn't likely to matter to the large number of Linux users who don't tolerate anyone, including software vendors, dictating where or how they can use their software.

(Here's my first take on Fingergear's hilariously expensive "Computer On A Stick," which originally ran in yesterday's Linux Pipeline newsletter:)

I love to read. This is a good trait for any editor to have, especially one who needs to keep abreast of as much news as possible. Sometimes, though, I'm amazed at the amount of time that can pass between the moment when I read something and the moment when I realize that the something I read wasn't quite right.

This happened over the weekend, when my wife asked me how much it would cost to buy one of the 256 MB USB "thumb drives" that people seem to be handing out lately as if they were sticks of chewing gum. In fact, I soon discovered that it's easy to find 256MB USB drives for less than $20 -- and the price seems to be falling by the day, if not by the hour.

My work done, I was headed back towards my Pop-Tart and glass of milk when I realized that a story I had read, published on the site, and even included in last week's newsletter suddenly seemed, well, a little off. A company called FingerGear was promoting what it calls the "Computer On A Stick:" a Linux operating system and a software suite including OpenOffice.org, Firefox, and various other open-source regulars, all installed on a bootable, 256MB USB 2.0 flash drive.

The price for this little stick of open-source goodness? A mere $149.00, which as the Fingergear home page illustrates, is about a third of the software costs for a similar Apple system and only about one-sixth the cost of a similar setup using all Microsoft products.

The problem is that this "comparison" looks more like a diversion than a promotion: a 256MB USB thumb drive now retails for less than $20, and it would cost even less at wholesale. I looked again at the list of software included with the device and saw oceans of free beer: OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Evolution, a couple of free IM clients, various free utilities, yada yada.

I weighed another possibility: The drive housed some awesome Linux kernel modification that would curl my toes and make my hair stand up. No dice: According to an unnamed moderator in the company's support forums, the drive uses an unmodified Debian distro with a Linux 2.6.x kernel.

At least, I assume it's unmodified. Fingergear doesn't include any source code on its site. Another visitor, after asking for the source code and being directed to the Debian Web site, was thinking along the same lines:

Did Fingergear make any patches to any programs in the Debian distribution? If so, then those patches need to be made available under the GNU license.

I find it hard to believe that an unpatched Debian distro is the base.

To be honest, I'm pretty stumped myself: No matter how I look at this product, I still see a company charging $149 for a product where I had identified no more than $20 in production costs. According to the moderator who answered the source code question, Fingergear adds its own (closed-source and proprietary) "startup system," which presumably does something the Debian kernel does not do, while carefully avoiding any GPL-invoking kernel encounters.

It does not sound like the kind of software for which one should pay over $100, at any rate.

According to the Fingergear "About Us" page, the company is a subsidiary of Bionopoly LLC, whose main line of business seems to be making and selling USB-based, biometric computer security devices. In fact, Fingergear sells a biometric version of its Computer-On-A-Stick, with a thumbpad sensor attached to the end.

How much, you ask, does the deluxe, biometric-enabled version of the Computer-On-A-Stick cost? You guessed it: $149

My advice, at least for now: Avoid this odd little company and its odd little product with the mind-boggling profit margins and sketchy licensing. Instead, visit your favorite tech retailer, spend $50 or $60 for a 1GB USB drive, download a customized version of Puppy or some other small-footprint distro, and cut the middleman out of this process.

By the way, that person who asked whether Fingergear had modified its Debian distro and was thus obligated to publish the source code for its kernel patches? They're still waiting for an answer, a week later.

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