Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

When 'supported' doesn't equal 'fully functional'

As your experience in Linux grows, you learn one thing: don’t buy new hardware or peripherals without checking whether it’s supported by your favorite distribution. It saves both money and disappointments. I wanted to buy a decent mediaplayer. To be honest, I am kind of cheap. I don’t feel the need to buy the latest Apple gadget at a premium price. I don’t need to buy a fashion- or geek statement, but simply want a device that does what it needs to do. And at a bargain price, of course (I’m Dutch 😉 ).

One of the players that had both positive reviews and a strong indication of Linux support was the Creative Zen Vision:M. You can use it under Amarok and Rhythmbox and Gnomad2 is your friend to load your music on the device. Once the decision was made, it became a simple bargain hunt (keywords: eBay, dollar exchange rate). I am now the proud owner of a great mediaplayer and I can assure you the positive reviews were not exaggerated.

I didn’t even think about using the Windows installation I have at hand for problematic programs, but happily plugged the device in my Ubuntu box. No problem. Rhythmbox recognized it, Amarok recognized it and Gnomad2 recognized it. I could move 20 Gb of MP3 files to the player without a problem and create new playlists.

Since the Vision:M also has video playback I wanted to put some movies on it as well. But how? Gnomad2 wouldn’t recognize them, nor would Amarok or Rhythmbox. Plus, there were some issues with the playlists. A couple of audiobooks wouldn’t appear in the proper order, even if the ID3 tags were correct.

Since I wanted to check for a firmware upgrade I rebooted into Windows and installed the programs that Creative makes available to organize your mediaplayer. What a difference! Gnomad2 wouldn’t allow files to be stored in separate folders, so I thought it was a “Vision:M thing”. It isn’t, it’s a Gnomad2 thing. I could create scores of playlists by simple right clicking a folder or selecting the files I wanted. Video- and moviefiles could be added through an easy and attractive interface. Then I noticed that the mediaplayer had some extra functions, like the ability to synchronize appointments, contacts and tasks with Outlook. And I wondered, why isn’t all this functionality available under Linux?

We should blame Creative first, I guess, for not offering a Linux native client or at least providing sufficient specifications for other developers to create such a program. But that is only part of the “blame”. Why does Gnomad2 support moving MP3 files to the device but not XVID files? Why doesn’t it allow for music files to be stored in it’s own folders? Why is it cumbersome to fine tune your playlists? The answer, no doubt, is that too few people asked for it or the developers didn’t care about it. The main function, storing MP3 files, is there and you can create custom playlists, but compared to the full Windows-based program it is Spartan at best.

I didn’t mention being able to synchronize Evolution’s appointments, contacts and tasks with the mediaplayer, because I know that would be a difficult one to implement. The whole thing did make me think. What would it take to have programs that not simply support the core functions, but provide full functionality? And I don’t mean ‘develop coding skills’. How could we encourage developers to unlock the potentials of peripheral devices via attractive, easy to use programs?

Maybe it should be a monetary incentive, specific funds filled with microcontributions from users that would directly benefit from such a program. If thousand owners of -in this case- a Vision:M mediaplayer would contribute 10 dollars, you would have a fund of $ 10.000. Would a developer or team of developers be willing to write the needed program for that money and release it under a free or open source license?

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