May 2, 2002

Wal-Mart PC provider to correct Linux modem problem

Author: JT Smith

- By Russell C. Pavlicek -

On Monday, we published the article, "Installing Linux On
a Wal-Mart OS-less machine
." The review was positive overall, but it
highlighted a problem: that the modem included in the machine has no
functional Linux driver.
Less than three days later, the builder of the Wal-Mart systems, Microtel Computer Systems, announced
that it has heard the voice of the Open Source community and will soon begin
shipping Linux-compatible modems in its Wal-Mart PC packages.

Wal-Mart recently began offering Microtel PCs without Windows
pre-installed to people who intend to use non-Windows operating systems
like Linux and FreeBSD. In the April 29 NewsForge/Linux.com review, the modem tested is a Lucent software modem, identified as a type
048C. While there is a driver that works for many Lucent modems, the
driver
does not include support for this model
, which is based on the
SV92P chip.

This deficiency received quite a bit of attention from the Open Source
community at NewsForge/Linux.com and their sister site, Slashdot. About 500 comments were quickly logged from visitors to the three Web sites, with many of them
focusing on the issue of the modem. In particular, many people wondered
why a machine marketed to Linux users would contain a modem that Linux
could not use.

Here's a fairly typical comment from an anonymous NewsForge reader: "At my employer, we've had nothing but grief with the use of 'Winmodems' (Such as the Lucent one described in the article or the PC-Tel offerings...) on the motherboard of several of the embedded machines we work with. If you can rip it out for an ISA or PCI hardware modem, you're much better off."

The picture changes

On the afternoon of May 1, I (the author of the original review) received
email from Rich Hindman of Microtel. He said Microtel had become aware of
the review and the concerns raised by the community. With a
directness which I find refreshing in this industry, Mr. Hindman indicated
that before the day was over, Microtel intended to correct the problem.

And correct it he did. That evening, I received notice that Microtel
had designated a hardware modem that would take the place of the current
modem. Mr. Hindman explained, "Effective 5-7-02, all units will ship with
the new hardware modem." The short delay on implementation was required
because they would not have the new modem in stock until May 7.

Mr. Hindman went on to say, "Again, I want to thank you and your readers
for all the responses."

Lessons learned

There are at least a couple of lessons to be learned here. First, it is
clear that some companies really are interested in solving customer
issues. Many of us who have been in this industry for an extended period
of time have become accustomed with large PC providers who offer words,
rather than real solutions, when customers encounter problems. It is rare
to find a company that will respond to a deficiency in a PC product line
in days rather than months. It is even rarer to find a company that will
jump to correct an issue that's solely an Open Source community
issue.

For quickly doing the right thing and heeding the voice of the community,
I say, "Kudos to Microtel!" If the company follows through as promised, the Open
Source community will have access to a Linux-friendly box from one of the
world's biggest retailers. That's good news.

Secondly, this illustrates the potential influence of the Open Source
community. We've joked about "the Slashdot effect" and its ability to
bring down Web sites by focusing the attention of the community on them.
But now we see that when the community focuses on a product --
particularly on a product marketed to the community -- it is possible to
promote change.

This may not seem like it's very significant, but it is. Consider
this: One of the world's largest retailers has decided that the Open
Source community may be a viable marketplace. Wal-Mart has promoted products
aimed at us. And that has opened the door for us to be heard, not as
techies, but as consumers.

If we show that we will buy from those who listen to us and not from those
who don't, we have the potential to slowly move the direction of the
industry as a band of consumers. Am I suggesting that we all run to
walmart.com and buy PCs? No. But when we do buy PCs, don't look at the
price tag alone. If the vendor refuses to recognize the concerns of the
community, maybe it's time to find a new vendor.

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