Hardware-software compatibility on handhelds

It would be good if one could go to a store, buy any smartphone or a tablet, and later choose what OS to run on it. Like what happens with desktop and laptop computers, you buy any one of any brand (even Apple!) and you can almost certainly run a OS other than the default on it – some things are taken for granted on a PC, which allows for this kind of freedom of choice.

Sure, you can install custom ROMs on smartphones… now go ahead and buy any one that isn’t popular and see what happens. If there is not a big enough user base most likely there isn’t anyone to develop custom ROMs. And unlike what happens with PCs, there doesn’t seem to be some list of assured features and standards. On personal computers, even on the ones built from OEM parts and no recognizable brand, it’s as simple as setting a boot device that is an OS installation disk. Sure, you need drivers to get the full potential of the hardware. Still, some things Just Work(tm), like PS/2 keyboard and mouse, serial ports, VGA video out (and I don’t mean graphics acceleration) and disk I/O.

Isn’t it about time some sort of standardization starts happening for mobile devices too, both at the hardware (charging connector/method) and software (system booting, basic elements)? The idea would be that simple things like storage I/O, screen (without GPU), touchscreen input (even in single-touch mode) and hardware keys Just Work(tm) because they are really easy to drive by the OS?

Look at something like KolibriOS. It is pretty limited on what it can do on a PC, because of a limited amount of drivers are included, and anyway everything is very simple. But as things are now, there’s no way one could write a KolibriOS that would run on all the phones and tablets the same way Kolibri runs on almost every PC, even with limited functionality.

It’s certainly a distant dream, seeing that even charging connectors are something we are yet to get quite right… all to make big brands happier at the cost of unhappier customers – even if they never noticed they were less happy because of that. </rant>

Utilities Beta 9 is out!

Six months after the previous public release of my Utilities add-in for the Casio Prizm calculators, the new Beta 9 is out! This version comes after an important refactoring of the source code, which by itself led to many fixed bugs and much higher stability. The g3a binary is also smaller (about 136 KiB) while featuring the same features plus some new ones, and that’s a big plus on a device with limited storage memory like the Prizm.


The most noticeable new “feature”, is probably the increased stability on tasks and calendar events, as well as in the file browser.

You no longer need to keep the storage memory fully optimized for calendar events and tasks to work without system errors.

Another new thing is a new timer/stopwatches system, which is now called “Chronometer”. There are 20 chronometers and each of them can go upwards or downwards. You can now select multiple chronometers (hint: Shift+F1 on the chronometers list shows useful selection options).

There’s now also a way to open files as text, with automatic line ending detection (supporting CR+LF, CR and LF) – on the file manager, press EXE when hovering on a file, then press F1 on the file information screen to open the text viewer. This still doesn’t automatically convert special characters from ASCII to Casio’s multibyte system but it’s something I’m planning to add.

File copying has been added, but this is unfortunately still too unstable, so this option will only appear when the “Show advanced tools” setting is enabled. Note that this is one of the last two functions of the add-in which are unstable (the other is the Add-In manager, which keeps being unstable probably because of a OS limitation – one can’t touch the add-in array under normal circumstances…).

Now there’s a way to save the current time to a OS Basic variable (those you can use on Run-Mat and almost everywhere in the official software): press the X/θ/T key on the main screen (where you see the time), and the hour fraction will be saved to the variable T with the maximum precision the RTC allows.

This add-in is finally headed for a stable 1.0 release – this Beta 9 release would be called a RC, if it weren’t for the Add-In manager and the file copying function, as well as a little feature that was committed to the git repo already in March, but got lost as I refactored the code. I shall add that little feature in time for the next release.

Update instructions:
(only applies if you used Utilities before Beta 9)

This bit is really, really important as there are some folder names that changed with this new release; also, not all files are compatible (calendar events and tasks are compatible, though). You must follow the following instructions for Utilities Beta 9 to work properly:

Delete the @UTILS folder in Main Memory (Memory app in Main Menu, press F1, scroll down to @UTILS, press F1, F6 and then F1);
– Now connect the calculator to your computer through USB, as a flash drive, and perform the following steps:
Rename the @CALNDAR folder in the storage memory of your calculator to @UTILS (you must do this on the computer because the OS won’t accept the @ as a valid character);
– Inside the newly renamed @UTILS storage memory folder, delete the file Hash.plp in case it exists (the new Hash.plp file is no longer compatible with the ones from previous versions).
– Copy the new utilties.g3a (download below) to the root folder of the calculator, overwriting the old one.
– Safely disconnect the calculator from the computer. You are ready to use the new version once your calculator finishes updating the Main Memory…

Download Latest Version of the Utilties add-in for the Casio Prizm

Updates on lots of things

I figured out I didn’t post anything here for quite a while – actually more than two months! There have been a series of events that have stopped me from updating this blog and, for a good part of these two months, have stopped me from doing anything besides checking my email and doing some school work.

The first cause for my online absence was that, a few days after I posted about this server having been reloaded, school classes have started. I happen to be taking probably the hardest school year I ever took – at least, that’s what older people said before it started, and which proved to be true now that two months of classes have gone by. Free time isn’t that abundant and I prefer to spend it doing actually something more useful than writing about random things on this blog. That almost explains why I haven’t been active on communities like FreeVPS. But there’s more…

Some time in mid-October I was left without a reliable, 24/7 Internet connection. This, after two or three months without an unlimited-traffic Internet connection, during which I had to hold the downloading of system updates for both Linux and Windows on all of my machines, plus the Android tablet; to keep to a minimum the access to online streaming media; and of course to hold any other big download/upload tasks. I had no Internet connection at home, which means checking the emails at school when possible. Checking anything other than email is horribly slow and unpractical on my old phone, and that’s why I repeat email is the fastest and most reliable way of communicating with me.

At the same time, I was being kept busy with school work. Free time was spent developing an Utilities software for my graphic calculator, a Casio fx-CG 20; this was probably the most useful thing I could do without an Internet connection, because at least gcc still hasn’t moved to the cloud.

Around 1st November, the technical problems that were stopping me from having Internet at home were solved (read: free wifi hotspot magically came back online!), and so the second cause for my lack of participation in the online life was solved. But there was still the first cause: school. So slowly, as I was having free time, I began to put me up to date on what happened while I was offline, and to make slow progress on my projects.

Apart from all this, I also have friends and family, and my real-life social life is way more active than it used to be one or two years ago (my brain must have installed some system updates, finally).

To conclude, on the IT side of things I’m now developing a JPEG image viewer for the Casio Prizm, using the picojpeg library (incredibly useful). The thing already works but is damn slow, plus selecting files is still a pain; this Prizm add-in isn’t yet published anywhere, or even announced on any place except this blog post (and don’t consider this an official announcement).

I finally had time to fix some bugs at tny.im and add some features: the optional short URL toolbar is now powered by Meny, which was developed by a guy which also has lots of other awesome work, namely a promising online presentations service called rvl.io.

I’m also trying to keep participating on online communities such as FreeVPS and Cemetech, and to keep my Twitter feed rolling, but the first cause for my online absence is still valid, and will only stop being on the beginning of July next year. This doesn’t exactly mean I won’t be online, but that you shouldn’t expect me to be as active as I once used to be. Again, if you need something, email me (admin at tny dot im, or my username on Gmail).

Until next post!

Merry Christmas!

I know it’s a bit too late already, but since what matters is the Christmas spirit and not the timings, here are my wishes for a great Christmas and a happy new year 2012. Let the happiness and healthiness be with you this Christmas and new year eve, as well as throughout 2012 and, well, your whole life. I hope all your good wishes come true! 😀

Now, my turn on Christmas wishes: let’s hope my new shiny, cheap Android tablet I bought (Flytouch 3, P041 model, not a Christmas gift!) gets fixed – its internal memory (a microSD card) is corrupt. Now I need to fix the microSD card in a Linux computer. Linux computer? Check. SD card reader? Check. microSD reader? Missing. Trying alternatives… microSD-to-SD adapter? Missing… Santa, all there is on my gifts list is a way to fix that tablet’s microSD, I want a microSD-to-SD adapter or a USB microSD reader (costs $1)!

I’ll let you know if/when I fix the device and get rid of that damn error the Flytouch returns when trying to burn the Linux kernel to said microSD!

Merry Christmas!

gbl08ma / Gabriel Maia

The Raspberry Pi: What it is and why it will make a difference

I’ve met the Raspberry Pi project around three months ago, and immediately fell in love for its concept and idea: to build a extremely cheap Linux box that could be used to teach children the world of programming, Linux and even open source in general. But when I first knew about this project (it was on Slashdot if I remember correctly), me and lots of other people were skeptical about it, specially because of the aim price (USD $25/18,5€), because of the size of the prototype board (the first one presented was no big than a USB flash drive, and in fact, was smaller than many of them), and because their website consisted of a single page with an image of that prototype board and a few technical details; it also said the Raspberry Pi Foundation was a charity (non-profit).

I forgot about the project for a few weeks: like many other people, I thought this was no more than vaporware. Later, when I visited their website again, I found it to be much more complete, and it already had some more information and more facts had been confirmed. From then on, I began to check the website much more frequently and, currently, the Raspberry Pi doesn’t look like vaporware anymore: there are alpha boards built that have been distributed to various people doing software work on them, and the project staff has ran demos of the Alpha boards at many meetings. The Raspberry Pi was and continues to be responsible by news articles, sometimes front-page articles, on many technology sites. They also shown on UK television and radio. All this, and they haven’t released a final product to the market yet!

So what is the Raspberry Pi, in conclusion? It’s a extremely cheap, cheaper than many books, embedded Linux board. At launch, there will be two models: A and B. The model B has better features than the A, they will cost $35 and $25 respectively. Behind the project there’s a charity with the same name, the UK-based Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Both models feature an ARM11 Broadcom CPU clocked at 700MHz and a GPU capable of drawing Full HD H.264 videos at 30fps, and supporting OpenGL ES 2.0; a SD/MMC/SDIO card slot from which the OS will boot. For video output, the Pi has both an HDMI connector and a good old composite video connector, which means the Pi will be able to display not only on a modern LCD with HDMI connectors, but also on older TV sets and displays that feature composite video input(s). The RAM varies according to each model, and is presented stacked on top of the CPU (PoP configuration). Both models have some GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output) pins, although nowhere as many as things like the Arduino.

As for power supply, the Raspberry Pi will ask for a 5V input, and it should run off 4 AA cells. It will use a micro-USB connector for power supply, but note that it doesn’t act as a USB client device (it only draws power from micro-USB, no data). The energy consumption of the board is also incredibly low, and I believe it is lower than the consumption of many devices in standby mode.

The publicly shown Raspberry Pi Alpha board

The publicly shown Raspberry Pi Alpha board

Model A will only have 1 USB port, no ethernet and 128MB of RAM, whereas the model B will feature 2 USB ports, an ethernet jack and 256MB RAM. The final PCB design has been released, after lots of work doing the routing of the tracks of the PCB to ensure the maximum efficiency of the Raspberry Pi; the board will have the same area as a credit card (it’s amazing how could they fit all the connectors in such a small size board).

Oh, and I forgot to say: the Pi also has a 3.5 mm jack audio output; combine this with the small form factor of the board, some portable power supply and buttons connected to the GPIO, and there you have a very powerful MP3 player that also turns into a full-featured PC when you connect a display, keyboard and mice to its USB port(s). Or you could bring a touchscreen and make your very own Android/Ubuntu/whatever Linux tablet!

The circuit scheme of the final boardThe circuit scheme of the final board

As for the software, the board is designed to run ARM Linux distros, but people are already planning on porting other lightweight OS – don’t expect Windows in any way though as a) this device is simply too open-source for Microsoft’s mind and b) There’s not enough RAM to run Windows 8 in any way. Plus, WINE and other Windows abstraction layer software will not work, as these are not designed for ARM. Apart from these limitations (that most certainly don’t affect you unless you were expecting to make a hardcore gaming machine out of it), the Pi will do, better or worse, practically everything you do with a PC: web browsing, email, word processing, spreadsheet, instant messaging… for more advanced users, this is also a perfect server, either for serving files on USB drives, or hosting websites. For those (of any age!) willing to learn (embedded) software development, this is also the perfect device – specially because it’s cheap as hell, when compared to things like the successful Beagleboard.

I guess that we only need to allow time for humans to develop uses for the Raspberry Pi, and some of them will drive our minds crazy I’m sure. Enough presenting the Pi, if you want to know more you can do research…

Why I think the Pi will make a difference

You already saw what the Pi is from my quite long introduction above. I won’t say this is a revolutionary device, that will change the way we see technology. I won’t say that this is going to cause an impact as big as the iPhone caused on mobile phones or as the iPod on digital music, either, specially because a) the Pi doesn’t have an Apple on the back, b) the iPhone/iPod weren’t news either, since things like them already existed before; that fruit company only made them friendly to the masses (and credit to them for that).

Other thing that makes me think the Pi won’t reach the intended audience so fast as some expect is it’s appearance. I don’t want to make more analogies with Apple’s devices, but please allow for just another one: smartphones existed well before the iPhone, and I have an HTC phone from 2005 that did more (has 3G connectivity, for example) than the first iPhone, that was launched much later. Then why didn’t the older smartphones make much success? I don’t think expensive is the problem, but their look: most of them look ugly, to the masses at least, something the iPhone did better (just like with most recent Apple products).

Stopping with Apple analogies (I promise!)… the Pi is an innovative product by its size, its price and its main objective. If enough people know about it, it will suppress many markets, such as the thin clients one. From my point of view, this is the most cheap and minimal mini-ITX you can get, with the detail it doesn’t run Windows, but that is a matter of getting the world used to Linux. Due to its small power supply requirements and the cheap price, it will also bring computing where it is very rare nowadays, enabling people in development countries to have their first PC (or PED – personal embedded device 🙂 ). If we find a way to cheaply connect the Pi to the internet no matter where one is, it is even better, because people that have gain access to the ‘net and to who we teach how to use it, will eventually become better informed people.

In other words, this is a bit like the OLPC project, except that, at least in my honest opinion, and based on what I know from the OLPC project (which might not be accurate), it is being done with much more responsibility and a true knowledge of the requirements of the target audience. It also uses emerging technologies such as Linux for the ARM architecture, contributing to the evolution of the open source universe. But still, I don’t want to say the Pi is the perfect device: the Universe doesn’t allow perfect things to be made, duh. So, not being the perfect device, there’s always space for improvement, specially because one size doesn’t always fit all, and people will always one to thinker with a Pi to make them more like their own definition of “perfect”.

Other important difference in comparison with the OLPC project is that it isn’t just for children: indeed, the first batch of 10000 Raspberry Pies will be more targeted at developers and hackers (that doesn’t mean some “hackers” aren’t as young as me…), however and unlike was wrongly stated in many news, any person can buy it. Detail: I’m not yet sure if the first batch will be sold as a buy-one-donate-another project, making you pay for two Pis whereas you’ll only receive one, having the other going to charity. Please enlighten me on this subject!

The defects of the Raspberry Pi

As I said, this isn’t the perfect thing, and I think it’s important to point out its defects and limitations, because only this way we can improve on them. So, here are the things that according to my thoughts are yet to be solved or better discussed:

  • Peripherals: the Pi can be considered nothing more than a PC’s motherboard; it still needs you to have all the peripherals, from keyboards, mice, SD cards, and specially, a screen where to show things. The screen is the most expensive part, if you assume people can’t use an existing screen because of e.g. the lack of one.
  • Power supply: well, this is a “defect” that comes with every device, so I’m not considering it as a defect, but more of a “thing to discuss” – and many people are already discussing it, fortunately. Even if the Pi consumes such little power that it can run of standard AA cells, the things you’re going to connect to it won’t. And being the Pi basically just what a motherboard is to the PC, it’s pretty useless without some input/output devices – and these will consume much more power than the Pi. Well, we can assume you only connect a four-line character cell display to it, and a USB keyboard for input, and then use the display to show four lines of Linux shell – not very practical, obviously.
  • Memory/CPU specifications: As I said above, it’s not going to run the traditional Windows, nor a recent Firefox on Linux, at least until they stop making memory-hungry Firefoxes. It’s all a matter of studying the capabilities of the device and see if it applies for your project. I think the low specifications of the board also have a positive point: It will teach the young developers how to make apps that don’t use 1GB of RAM after half an hour of use, thus teaching these developers how to manage the system resources.
  • The case: it’s known that the Pi will ship without case. There will be cases available on the online store of Raspberry Pi, but of course these cost some money, increasing the price of the device if you must have a case. Of course, we can’t see just the negative part of this: the lack of a case opens people’s mind to creativity and curiosity, making them poke inside the Pi. If it breaks… well, if you have enough money to buy another, that’s not a problem. However, if we want to incentive children to learn programming with the Pi, it must be made somewhat attractive.

Finished! This is my long essay on the Raspberry Pi… please correct me if you find any errors on the facts presented here, and take the opportunity to express your own opinion by dropping a line on the comments. Oh, and of course don’t forget to visit the official Raspberry Pi website for more amusement! 😉