May 22, 2001

Looking ahead with handheld developer Robert van der Meulen

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -

Open Source people -

Netherlands born Robert van
der Meulen
does all his development for handhelds on a Yopy because it was the first
handheld to ship to developers with Linux pre-installed. Unsatisfied, however, with
G.Mate's Yopy development page he
started and now maintains the unofficial Yopy
developers site
in his free time.

He also is responsible for bzimage.org, contributes to the Debian
project, and works full time as a network/system operator, programmer and
"security guy" for a small Dutch company called Linux
Generation
. With all that involvement it's no wonder he made it very
clear that there were no computers involved with his favorite vacation ever -- three weeks biking through Ireland.

Not that you need a lot of vacations when you love what you do so
much that you do it in your free time. It's just that when you finally take
one, it needs to be literal. It's a personal imperative that he love what
he does, and when he talks about work he uses words like "cool," "fun,"
"playing." The other benefit about loving what you do is that you are
motivated by more than the almighty buck.

"The money can be good in IT but the highest priority is that I'm
having fun in what I do. I don't have to drag myself to work. The money is not that important, as long as I can keep my music/gadget habits up, and
don't have to worry about the rent and dinner."

Van der Meulen started computing by playing Tetris, Frogger, and Space Invaders on a Commodore around 1983. He was 8 years old. He got bored loading the
games from tape so he used the accompanying manual to teach himself Basic,
and eventually, before going off to study computer
science/telematics
at Utrecht, turned to Linux because the limitations of DOS started getting on his
nerves. Now, besides the bread-and-butter work of Web hosting and
custom software development that they do at Linux Generation, van der Meulen
is working, in addition to the handheld development, "on an embedded Linux
system that can be used for lots of stuff 'in your home' -- from
controlling your coffeemaker to your audio/video and alarm systems -- 'house
automation' stuff." Linux Generation is also toying with a Linux-based car stereo, and a
Linux set-top box.

He chooses Linux for handhelds because it's open, which he believes
all software should be, and because it's flexible.

"The great thing about Linux, when you spread it over multiple
hardware architectures, is that it's mostly the same. Development is
straightforward and platform-independent, testing cycles are short, and portability is
huge. On handhelds, you have the advantage of 'running a mini Linux system' --
putting it next to your desktop, in your pocket, allowing for easy
interoperation between the two -- as they run the same software. Next to
that, there's the gigantic pool of software readily available -- most of
it needs minor tweaking, almost all of it is reusable in part."

Disadvantages?

"You're running a desktop operating system on a handheld, so you
need to make decisions about size. In handhelds, adding memory gets lots more
expensive, fast ... And to a lesser extent, speed. I use a
Yopy for handheld development, and I need to cram a Linux kernel, the
base system, an X server, and my applications into 16Mb of flash memory, and
it would be cool to have some space for saving data as well. Speed is an
issue, because everything you do on a handheld should be 'snappy;' you tap
something, and you want to see the result immediately."

It's an immediacy that van der Meulen, who describes himself as
chaotic, craves on more than just his handheld. He's a city guy, he likes being
buoyed by the city's constant bustle. He likes easy access to urban culture.

Growing up in a small village just outside Deventer, Netherlands, van der Meulen spent his indoor time investigating the innards of
everything electronic and his outdoor time cultivating a taste for urban living.
Now, at 25 and living with some former co-workers in Utrecht, he
does pretty much the same thing. At home he's usually behind his computer,
maybe reading a science fiction or cyberpunk novel or taking apart a new
gadget, and when he's out he likes to visit museums, the cinema, meet friends
at a bar or restaurant, always with a few CDs and a player on hand.

It's this artistic side that, if anything, competed with computing
for his professional attention. Raised in a household with a technically
inclined father and a mother who loved to paint, van der Meulen worried
that working in the IT field would lack the creativity he craved. In a
rather adept compromise he has managed to carve out an atmosphere in which he
can be most creative while doing the development he loves.

"After finishing school (or actually my motivation for dropping out)
I started to work with an Internet provider called Cistron, doing various
stuff -- mostly development/security work, and some project management.
Then Cistron got bigger, became too much of a 'company' for my taste --
Cistron's owner and CEO thought much the same, left, and started Linux
Generation. I joined him. We started out with the two of us, and are a
three-person company now -- keeping it small, non-corporate, with a lot
of space for experiments, fun things, and playing with technology."

A truly well-rounded personality, when he's not just using his
left-brain to write code or his right-brain to look at paintings he's using both
at a local climbing gym or power kiting
at the beach.

With all this good time, it's a wonder that he's not more
sentimental, prone to lingering in the past, milking events by telling stories or
reflecting on memories. Instead, he reckons that he spends more time
thinking forward. Right now, he's looking forward to his first
cross-Atlantic expedition (he'll be co-hosting, with Wichert Akkerman,
a tutorial on development for the Debian distribution at the upcoming
LinuxWorld in San Francisco), and also to real broadband connections, applications
that "actually use it," and the integration of connectivity "in lots of
different stuff."

About Robert van der Meulen

Favorite book: Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Favorite music: "I mostly listen to alternative music/metal like Type O
Negative, PJ Harvey, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Nick Cave, but
some drum and bass as well -- Aphrodite, Chemical Brothers ..."

Favorite artist: Salvador
Dali
.

Video game: "The Final Fantasy series on Playstation, and the Monkey
Island series. I really can't pick between them."

Movie: Stigmata and La Cite des Enfents Perdu
(The City of Lost Children).

Linux Distribution: "Debian because it's the only distribution that has
a high 'freedom' standard, and I love the way the management works (updating, maintaining, manageability). There's also huge amount of software, compliance to as much standards as possible, and (if you run 'unstable') you can keep running the latest
version of almost everything without having to keep track of changes in
the software."

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