The company that wants to make buying a Linux PC as simple as buying a Windows one
23rd Jun 2013 | 09:00
We talk to Cathy Malmrose, CEO of ZaReason, about making Linux-specific hardware
We love Linux. It's a great system that lets us tinker around to our heart's content, and it's free. Not just zero cost, but actually free from the constraints of commercial software.
If there is a downside to it, it's that it can be difficult to buy hardware set up ready to run. You can end up in a mire of checking spec-sheets against compatible drivers in various versions of the kernel, and that's without even considering the Microsoft tax.
However, it doesn't have to be like this. There are great companies making computers that just work with free software and come with Linux set up and ready to go. ZaReason is one such company, and Linux Format magazine caught up with its CEO Cathy Malmrose just after she gave a talk at FOSDEM on the dangers of UEFI.
LXF: When did you personally start to get interested in free software, and eventually the hardware that it runs on?
CM: I first got interested in free software in about 1998. We have two boys - one had red hair, the other blond - and they insisted on having nine desktops so that when they came home from school, their friends could play. So we had nine desktops and were so sick of blue screens every weekend. Nine desktops with a bunch of little kids playing on them - you're constantly doing tech support. We wanted something a bit more resilient.
LXF: Can you give us a little bit of a history about ZaReason? When did you start it? And what did you plan to achieve?
CM: Sure. We started in 2007 in Berkeley California. It started for two reasons: we couldn't find any computers running Linux out of the box, and we didn't want to mess with making sure we got the right components, so we decided to start a company where that's all we would do.
Also there was a computer recycling company nearby called ACCRC [Alameda County Computer Resource Center] that had put out over 16,000 Ubuntu desktops, and we were volunteering there helping them get their computers out to schools and other organisations that needed computers for free (16,000 Ubuntu desktops is a lot). And we found that Ubuntu could run on anything. It was just such a solid OS that we were impressed, and so we decided to start our own company in 2007.
LXF: What have the biggest obstacles been to selling Linux computers?
CM: The global expansion. But we're hardware geeks rather than business people. We're trying to hire a new CEO who can handle the global expansion, but it's really hard to find someone who can do that who can do what needs to be done and look at more than just cash. And who can make it sustainable.
LXF: We hear you're looking at moving to the UK at the moment.
LXF: What's the timescale for that?
CM: Right after the conference is over!
LXF: And you're starting in one location?
CM: Yes, just one little location. We'll partner with an existing computer shop. Someone who is already set up to distribute and already has fantastic tech support.
LXF: Beyond England, what's the next stop?
CM: Italy, France, Germany… any of the others. Let's see how it goes.
LXF: Do you find that the biggest challenge is getting the computers built, or getting people to buy them?
CM: The bigger challenge is the R&D. The one way to make my head spin is to say that all we're doing is pre-loading the software, because it's so much more than pre-loading software. There's so much R&D that goes into a system that will work in any environment, with any type of user, with all the components, with any type of thing that they want to load on it. A lot of our customers do a lot of heavy work.
LXF: Do you mostly sell to businesses or individuals?
CM: We've sold to everyone from a NASA jet propulsion lab to one of our original customers was one of the original Google architects who's left and now runs his own robotics laboratory. Everything from that to an old man who literally cried because he was so sick of Windows. I love supporting individuals. I also love supporting the lab. We given a lot of support to LBL [Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory] funded by the department of energy.
LXF: There was a talk yesterday by Amelia Andersdotter who spoke about open source solutions in European governments. She said that the reason the competition commission couldn't investigate the use of Microsoft solutions in government was because there wasn't currently a supplier that could provide an open source solution at that king of scale. Do you think then that this is an open door of opportunity just waiting to be walked through?
CM: If we get started in the EU we'll look into that. However, the system in the US is so messed up. There are many times when contracts have to go to woman-owned companies, so a company will hire a woman just to be there, but she doesn't actually work at the company, and because of that it's a less than pleasant arena to work in.
LXF: Is there anything about ZaReason that you'd like to say to our readers?
CM: The only reason we're able to survive through the economic downturn and all that is because our original customers were developers. You know, in 2007 there were still problems with hibernate and suspend, if we'd had a larger non-developer base they wouldn't have understood that the community was working on these problems. But since we have so much developer support, it got us by in the early days.
They got these computers that were totally maxed out, and they would get them, and a week later we'd get an email saying: "Hey, do you know how to do this?" And: "Hey, here's a fix for this!" It was amazing! We had a guy email us with a price comparison of our model compared to every other model out there so we could keep our prices in line with the competition.
We had tons of support, so I just want to say a big thank you to everyone out there. That's the way the community works, and that's the way we want it to always work.
LXF: You've just been talking about UEFI. How receptive have the hardware manufacturers been to an alternative?
CM: The hardware manufacturers? Not at all.
LXF: They're still entrenched in the Microsoft way?
CM: It's business. It's so different from the free and open source community that it's a different world. There's no sense of benevolence. There's no sense of doing the right thing. It's just business. It's not something you want to live in. That's why I really appreciate conferences like this [FOSDEM] because it rejuvenates my faith in humanity.
LXF: In your mind, what is the best way forward from Secure Boot?
CM: Oh my gosh! There are several possible solutions. The ideal solution for ZaReason is for us to partner with as many distros as possible, have the distros retain control, and we handle the icky part of distributions. It's not fun to deal with distribution! That's why there are so few hardware builders. There are some incompatibilities with free and open source and business, but for the most part, we manage to structure it in a way that works.
LXF: You test out a lot of hardware, motherboards and the like. How many of them have you found have broken UEFI?
CM: It doesn't seem to be a problem yet. As we've seen with Win8 RT tablets, Microsoft is saying that you can't disable it. That's the way it's going. It's only logical that they'll try to do that on the desktop some day. It's not a guess, it's not a prediction - that's the way corporations work. That's where they're headed.
LXF: If someone wants to try and stop this happening, what do you suggest they can do to stop it?
CM: Don't buy a Windows 8 machine! Buy from a Linux vendor instead. There are plenty of them out there. One of the problems is that the mental power of our developers is being diluted by trying to solve the problem on each individual machine. If we could try to solve the problem in a more sustainable way, in a more permanent way, that would be the solution. The builder community needs to get together. We're hoping to hold some sort of meeting one of these days.