Open Source

Linux hardware woes

Jack Wallen finally experienced the frustration of a piece of hardware not working in Linux. Read on to find out exactly what that means to him as well as Linux in general.

I have spent the better part of the weekend finally experiencing what so many new Linux users experience - hardware woes. I purchased a nifty Wacom CTL 460 pen tablet for my budding artist stepdaughter (who happens to refuse to use Windows and will only use Linux - a chip off the old step-block). I assumed it would be a no-brainer to get this small tablet working as Wacom has been supported in Linux for quite some time.

Oh, was I ever wrong. In fact - I have still yet to get this thing working. I've managed to get it to register, I can see it using wacdump but no movement of the cursor. This little experiment has become the current bane of my existence as well as a real eye-opener to the plight of the new Linux user.

You have to remember - it's been a long, long time since I've had trouble with hardware under Linux. I remember my first experience with Linux trying to get a winmodem to work. That was utterly futile (and had me purchasing a US Robotics external modem). But now I am back to that point with a piece of hardware that should work. I have read so many accounts of the Wacom tablets.

With Ubuntu 9.04, it works out of the box. That may be - but Ubuntu 9.10 and 10.04 - not so much. I am certainly not willing to regress back to 9.04 just to get a tablet working (especially when it will only be a matter of time before the drivers and the kernel catch up to one another.)

And that is the crux of the issue (and one that most don't understand). Unlike major companies (like Windows and Apple), you do not have a warehouse (or campus) where all developers are working on the same schedule. With Linux you have the Kernel developers working on one schedule and then you have various groups (or individuals) working on drivers for devices. In most cases a group of driver writers (say for the Wacom tablets) will get a device working against a specific kernel (and Xorg release) at which point they will release it in the wild. The problem occurs when a kernel is upgraded which then breaks what the device drivers have worked hard to fix.

As you can imagine, its a veritable see-saw between kernel and driver developers to get devices working against a kernel. Although I have great respect for developers (especially open source developers), this model obvious has it serious pitfalls. I realize there are certain devices that are standard and will always work by default (the mouse and keyboard are good examples). But when something (like the tablet) depends upon:

  • kernel
  • Xorg
  • drivers

It's pretty clear that these teams need to work as, well, a team. When this doesn't happen, things break and users become frustrated. In the case of the tablet, a new user might have given up and gone back to Windows. I will continue until I get it working.

But this tablet issue brings up a very important point. Tablet. The very name inspires people to think of the future of computing. And if Linux is incapable of producing or working on tablet PCs, Linux will face a very uncertain future. This, of course, assumes tablets are here to stay. I believe tablets, in the their current incarnation, are nothing more than a stepping stone to something much better. This means that Linux MUST be able to get over such hardware woes or it's going to have some serious problems.

I believe the kernel, Xorg, and device developers need to sync their release schedules. I know that is nearly impossible as so many of the device developers are working solo or in small groups with no funding. But in the case of tablets - maybe a new team needs to be developed just to try to keep everyone on the same page. I don't really know what the solution is. I know my Wacom doesn't work on the newest release of what is proclaimed to be the most user-friendly of the OSes (I know, I am one of those doing the proclaiming).

Modern hardware on a modern OS that doesn't work. It's frustrating and eye opening at the same time. When a simple input device is seen by the kernel but not by Xorg, there is a disconnect somewhere. That disconnect needs to be fixed or else more and more users are going to experience hardware woes as tablets become the norm.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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