Buzz ... Hey! Buzz ... Buzz ... Hear that? Buzz ... Buzz ... Buzz...
That's the "Gotta be involved with it! -- Rub it all over! -- Hey! Are you a player?" Linux buzzzzzzz. It's still around, although not nearly as loud as it was way back in early 2000, before the sky started falling and even high-tech businesses had to start making this weird thing called profit.
Early 2000 was also when rumors first appeared about the G.Mate YOPY: a powerful, color handheld device to be delivered with Linux straight out of the box -- no overwriting WinCE on this unit. First shown in February 2000 at the Hannover Expo (CeBIT) in Germany, it was hoped the product would be available for March of that year.
But, being the high-tech industry, that release date slipped. Derrick Story wrote a short piece about the device in May of 2000, at which time the YOPY was to be released to the public by mid-August. The specs were enough to drive geeks wild: 206-MHz StrongARM processor, 240 x 320 16-bit color display, 32 Mbytes of RAM, CDMA Compact Flash II expansion -- very sweet stuff.
As it turned out, even the very first beta testers had to wait until mid-July of 2000 to get developer units. The YOPY Development Kit remains the only model available today (June 15, 2001); the product intended for end-consumers is now expected in "the third or forth quarter" of 2001.
When Derrick asked me to have a look at the options for Linux on handheld devices earlier this year, the YOPY was of course on the top of my list of platforms to review. After a bit of work, a contact was established with the company and a developer unit was ordered. I could hardly wait!
G.Mate's order receiving and fulfillment are impressive; an example of e-commerce at its best. A secure form accepts your credit card number, and USD$590 later, a unit is on the way from Korea. "From Korea!" you say, "That must take forever!"
G.Mate uses TNT as the shipping company, and I received my unit two business days after ordering, spanning a weekend, delivered to Western Canada. The unit can be traced during shipping through TNT's web site until the last (in my case) 3,000 Km; TNT passes the unit off to a national courier for final delivery.
Be aware that in addition to the price of the unit and shipping, duty and taxes will likely be due to your own country's customs department, along with a brokerage fee to a clearinghouse. These will appear on a separate bill which may appear with the package, possibly causing a delay in receiving the unit, or may show up some time later.
The developer's version of the YOPY is almost exactly the same size as a Compaq iPAQ in width and height, but about one and a half times as thick and as heavy. Unlike the iPAQ's curved edges, however, the YOPY has a general square boxy shape. The YOPY case is two-tone, with a off-white front and light-brown back. The buttons are all silver in color, while two switches on the unit are black.
The display size is a tiny bit larger on the YOPY than the iPAQ, although not enough that you could tell without side-by-side comparisons. The YOPY's display, able to show 65,536 colors, has an advantage over the iPAQ's display, limited to 4,096 colors. This allows the YOPY to display continuous-tone images (like photographs of people) without having to dither.
At the top-back of the YOPY is Compact Flash Type II expansion slot -- you can slide in a memory or microdrive device, and use it to expand the abilities of the YOPY. G.Mate has recently released a USD$70 camera module which slips into the slot as well.
Beyond that, it's a pretty standard handheld device -- four directional buttons and two action buttons plus power on the front of the unit, four buttons and a jog switch on the left, along with the infrared port. On the right is the audio in/out jack and a "hold" switch. On the very top is the click-in/click-out stylus holder, and on the bottom is power and RS232 port.
The YOPY is powered by a 1400mA rechargeable lithium-ion battery when being used in the field, or by an AC-line power supply when in its cradle. The YOPY can be configured to remain on continuously when external power is available. This is very handy when networking with the device.
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The developer's version of the YOPY ships with a 2.2.14 version of the Linux kernel (for ARM processors), and a full boot takes less than 25 seconds. During the boot process the screen remains black -- but finally you're greeted with a deep orange "Linupy" splash screen, and then a GUI panel asking you to set the current date and time.
Once fully booted and the time is set, the screen returns to the Linupy logo but with a menu and display bar along the bottom of the screen. A red "up arrow" brings up a icon list of available applications, detailed below. Note that the arrow doesn't bring up a menu, but rather an application that lists and launches other applications.
Next over on the bar is a keyboard (or a pencil) icon, which brings up the virtual keyboard or handwriting-recognition writing area, as appropriate. Immediately to the right of that is a pop-up menu which lets you choose which input method to use. On the lower right of the screen is a display showing current time, battery power, and, if the unit is powered externally, a small power-plug symbol.
The applications included with the YOPY are limited in number, but show some of the possibilities with a color PDA device. There's a contacts app, task manager and scheduler, but no Notepad app (although you can attach notes to the records of the applications). There's also a little drawing program called Painter, an MP3 player, and a (limited) Web browser. A dialer and other configuration apps are also included.
There are many things to talk about here, but the question I'm interested in is: What do the developers out there think about the path YOPY has taken with its Linux installation, and how much interest is there in developing applications for the YOPY?
Overall, the included applications are snappy as they run and paint the screen, and have interesting ways of displaying information on the small screen size. The scheduler, for example, in the Month view, displays the hours currently scheduled graphically for each day, using two circles each divided into 12 sections -- clever, and very useful.
However, once I actually tried to use the applications for personal information management (PIM) functions, I discovered that there were many bugs with the individual applications and the window/app management itself. For example, while you can always launch a new application, there's no way to switch between running apps. The scheduler also never gives an alert about an upcoming event.
"No problem," I thought. "The code should be available -- there must be people working on fixing this." That's when I asked my contact at G.Mate some questions about YOPY development efforts, the independent developer community, and how G.Mate planned to differentiate the YOPY from the iPAQ. I really didn't like the answer: "I am sorry that I cannot answer your questions ..."
G.Mate made an early decision to use a windowing system called "W Windows" instead of the more common X Window System provided by almost all Unix workstations. X also runs on the Agenda VR3, and the Handheld.org and Familiar distributions for the iPAQ.
W Windows was forked from an effort to make a lightweight windowing system for monochrome displays, with G.Mate adding the ability to handle color. This was done by programmers within G.Mate, as was the development of the W-based GUI applications.
Because of the incompatibility between W and X, not to mention the inability to import and export displays to W, the porting of applications has been significantly hindered. Despite complaints by developers on the Yopydeveloper.org mailing list, G.Mate stuck by its decision, arguing it provided faster displays and a commitment to other commercial parties to provide the W environment. [Note: See the update at the end of this article].
Fortunately for the developer community, Young Hoon Kim, a G.Mate programmer, ported X to the YOPY and made it available "unofficially." Finally, giving up trying to hold back water, G.Mate agreed an X environment would become the new base installation for the YOPY, dumping W Windows. In addition, a 2.4.x kernel would be made available, largely based on the work done by the Handhelds.org group.
This shift in direction demonstrates (again) that introducing an incompatible technology without strong justification just won't work. Particularly amongst open/free programmers, no one is willing to invest in your new technology unless its worth their time. While W may be faster than X on a 206-MHz machine, is it worth the loss of compatibility? Empirically, NO!
The other aspect of the new direction of the YOPY is it enviably leads to a direct comparison between the YOPY and the iPAQ. After all, they're effectively running the same software, and they both have the same processor -- a StrongARM running at 206 MHz with 32 Mbytes of RAM and 16 Mbytes of Flash memory. Although new 64K models of the iPAQ are just becoming available.
As mentioned above, the YOPY can display 16-bit color, while the iPAQ is limited to 12-bit. The YOPY also has the advantage of its single CF-II expansion port being built in; the iPAQ requires an expansion sleeve to be used to expose either one or two CF or PCMCIA ports.
On the downside, of course, is the same expansion ability -- the iPAQ can do PCMCIA as well as CF, and can handle one or two of the devices. Even with the required expansion devices, the iPAQ is still smaller (less thick) and lighter than the YOPY.
The last advantage the iPAQ has, of course, is the fact it's available on retail shelves today, while the YOPY must be mail-ordered from Korea. Ironically, the iPAQ also works out to be less expensive than the YOPY, particularly before recent YOPY price reductions.
Bear in mind we're comparing developer versions of the YOPY to the retail iPAQs. Hopefully the size and weight issues will be addressed by the time consumer versions become available.
A question I asked G.Mate, and all the other companies I contacted for this series, was "Where does your independent developer community communicate? Where does the software they create get cataloged?"
The answer for the YOPY is Yopydeveloper.org, hosted by G.Mate, providing documentation for the unit and a mailing list for independent developers with a web-based archive. There are also some web-based bulletin boards. Software isn't cataloged, but is generally announced on both.
As far as activity is concerned, simply subscribing to both the YOPY list and the iPAQ or Familiar developer lists from Handhelds.org will speak volumes. The YOPY list has seen about a dozen messages a week lately, while the iPAQ lists see a dozen or more a day.
When I started this project, I was hoping I would have wonderfully exciting news to report about all three Linux platforms -- the YOPY, the iPAQ, and the Agenda. Oh, well, two out of three still isn't bad.
If the YOPY had been released to the public in March of 2000, I suspect it would have by now been a serious contender. Promoted as the "first Linux handheld," the YOPY had such promise.
Alas, we still wait for a final model. Meanwhile, competitors already have product "on the street" -- iPAQ for very similar hardware or the Agenda VR3 for much lower-end hardware but true "Linux out of the box."
I really hope I'm proven wrong, but I cannot see any way that the YOPY will become a commercial success at this point, at least in North America. There is still a chance G.Mate may attract a critical mass of independent developers to make its platform fly. But I just don't see it.
The Familiar distribution and the iPAQ is the most promising configuration for StrongARM-based platforms. Until G.Mate can tell me -- and every other developer making the decision -- exactly what makes the YOPY better, developers will naturally go to where the action is.
The following list is all I could find as far as sites providing YOPY developer information and exchange. No user-oriented sites exist, as expected for a developer-only product.
At the last minute, Young Hoon Kim agreed to answer my questions: The W Windows applications are in fact being dropped entirely, with new applications being developed as replacements. There are 20 engineers and programmers working on the YOPY project, and the current release date for retail product is October of this year.
There are no plans to make Pocket Linux work on the YOPY, although both the Handhelds.org and Familiar (only the latter really matters now) distributions will work with the YOPY, in addition to G.Mate's own distribution. In response to how G.Mate will differentiate the YOPY from other players in the Linux market, Mr. Hoon replied "We will make this device much like PC for performance and look."
Thanks to Mr. Hoon for replying to my final inquiry. I sincerely wish him and G.Mate well in their continued efforts in bringing the YOPY to market.
Chris Halsall is the Managing Director of Ideas 4 Lease (Barbados). Chris is a specialist... at automating information gathering and presentation systems.
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