On the Fate of RIM (Maker of BlackBerry Products) and my New PlayBook Tablet

It seems like every FOSS enthusiast has a soft spot for some proprietary software, whether it’s Google phones or browsers, Apple mobile devices, or Lenovo notebook computers. My soft spot is for BlackBerry products.

My BlackBerry odyssey began in 2006 when I started attending university practically next door to RIM’s headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Back then, they were still an enterprise-oriented company, and a rising star. I didn’t get my first device until 2008, when I chose it for technological reasons: I wanted encrypted email, calendaring, and messaging. Also, at this point the iPhone had yet to make it big and Android didn’t exist.

When my mobile phone contract expired mid-way through 2011, I knew I wanted another BlackBerry device, but by then we were well into the period where virtually everybody has turned their back on RIM in favour of (usually) Apple devices and the occasional Android one. Worse still, I already knew of the still-upcoming devices running a QNX-based operating system programmed in C, rather than the current Java-powered one. Long story short, I was able to get my hands on a Java-based device for free.

So here’s the part you’ve all been waiting for: RIM is not dying, they’re being killed.

Everybody who pays attention has heard all the anti-RIM sentiments out there in North American mass media nowadays. In fact, they aren’t even cited as facts any more because everybody “just knows.” Here are some other facts that I’ve read in various places but won’t bother to cite (for my own lazinesss):

  1. RIM will still report a profit for this financial year.
  2. BlackBerry devices are still very popular in consumer markets that aren’t North America.
  3. There was a riot when the new “Bold” model was released in Indonesia. Think the style of the riot recently in the United States where people were killed while trying to buy Nike-brand shoes.
  4. The RIM “BlackBerry Internet Service” servers are statistically more reliable than virtually all Internet services (Google, Facebook, etc.). Even in the outage that occurred in the fall of 2011, most customers (myself included) didn’t even notice the service outage, and reportedly no emails or messages were lost–just delayed. Sure, the BIS happened to have all of its outage at one time, but in the past 10 years or so, this two-day outage was the only one ever (to my knowledge… and that of some article I read somewhere).
  5. Virtually no mass-media article about any RIM product has even approached neutrality since about July 2011. At least in “The Globe and Mail,” every article since October has recounted *all* of the company’s troubles in the past several months, whether or not they are relevant to the event being discussed.
  6. RIM was called to England on account of how BBM (BlackBerry Messenger), the company’s secure messaging service, helped in organizing the protests in London over the summer. Twitter and Facebook were also represented. What about Apple, Google, and Amazon? Surely there are quite a number of active BBM users in England.

What do I think is going on here? I don’t know why, but North American media outlets have decided to kill RIM. Predictably, most people where I live or have lived (Montreal, Toronto, Waterloo) are fine with it, and often endorse it. Yet when they move from dumb-phones to smartphones, people I know are choosing BlackBerry about as often as an Android or iOS device.

I’d also like to point out how dumb it is that millions of Canadians seem to want to kill the only internationally-visible Canadian technology company in favour of the American technology oligarchy. But hey, we don’t live in Canada any more–at least, our government isn’t called the “Canadian Government” but the “Harper Government,” so I guess if it’s Harper’s choice of how the Canadian media is allowed to refer to my government, then it should be Harper’s choice of how to ruin my country. He’s doing it by selling my country’s assets to international business-people, and killing RIM will help that goal.

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As an enthusiast, I was immediately intrigued by RIM’s “PlayBook” tablet computer. When it was released in April 2011, it was basically the only competitor to the Apple iPad. The situation is very different at the end of 2011, of course. Now, I’m not trying to irrationally defend RIM, so I have to agree with the general portrayal of the PlayBook: RIM screwed it up in a big way, several times, and continues to do so. If you want to learn how, read that elsewhere… it’s easy to find.

So why did I want a PlayBook tablet? I wasn’t about to pay $500 for something from a company that was about to collapse, had major bugs in the operating system, and virtually no apps available. Then several things changed: the PlayBook went on sale for $300 off, I realized RIM isn’t going to collapse, they fixed the major bugs, and the NDK (Native Development Kit… in C language, not HTML5 or re-packaged Android) was released with quite a number of open-source development libraries, including ones used by software I use often. There are, unfortunately, still virtually no apps available, in comparison to other platforms. Plus, when PlayBook OS 2 is released, it will have support for easily-ported Android apps and (I think) be able to connect directly to the BlackBerry Internet Service.

Here’s my review:

I’ve used the device for about two weeks, and it doesn’t do everything I hoped, but it does some things that I hadn’t envisioned. I still don’t know what it’s going to be like to take notes with it during my seminars, but it’s certainly going to be useful for bringing and reading PDF versions of books and articles that I’ve scanned from the library. Much more handy than taking all the books!

I feel like I’ve been using it for things that I previously wouldn’t have done. Nothing big, just typical tablet things: reading the news, watching online videos, listening to online music, checking Facebook and Twitter, and so on. I was initially allured by the ability to use Bluetooth to pair my BlackBerry phone with the PlayBook, then access the phone apps on the tablet. Unfortunately, the BlackBerry Messenger app is basically unusable because it doesn’t sync properly. Some received messages never register as “read,” so the notifications area keeps telling me I have unread messages, even when I’ve read them many times. Also, there is sometimes considerable lag after I send a message. The email, calendar, and contacts apps don’t seem to be affected. The Bluetooth connection is fairly powerful: I can leave my phone in a central place and walk around with the tablet without a noticable decrease in performance.

In two weeks, it’s never crashed, I’ve never had to restart it because of a software bug, the OS-level commands are always responsive (even when a particular app has frozen), the graphics are impressive, the screen is bright, the device is robust (I’ve dropped it in ways I shouldn’t have), it stays charged for days, the on-screen keyboard is surprisingly easy to use, the cameras work well and the speakers sound surprisingly good and are loud enough, there are a handful of cool music apps (I hope to add some more), the user interface reacts in predictable ways, and the browser has yet to fail me on a web page (unlike the phone version).

At first, I had problems getting the touch screen to react how I wanted, but now I never have problems. Having never owned a touch-screen device before this one, I chalk it up to lack of experience. Also, the 7-inch size is perfect for me… it’s big enough to see things, but small enough that I can carry it securely with one hand.

With this whole rant/post in mind, the one thing I cannot answer for is games. I generally don’t have time to play games, and when I do I want a real computer (for FreeCiv!) So… read another review for that.

Secure Your Desktop Fedora Installation

I started this post as a comment to Sparks’ post about end-user security here. The response became very long, very quickly, so I posted it here instead.

The question of browser add-ons is also affected by that user’s initiative. Everybody suggests NoScript as the perfect solution to security problems, but it really isn’t. I use NoScript, but try convincing an average computer user to put up with the tinkering that NoScript requires, and it falls flat.

The following add-ons increase security/privacy without user interference:
Beef Taco
BetterPrivacy
Ghostery
Secure Sanitizer

I’ve found it’s easy enough to convince people to use and experiment with the following add-ons, once I’ve explained what they do and how it increases their online safety:
RequestPolicy
PasswordMaker

I would not consider getting rid of any of these, and there are others too. As Sparks suggests, HTTPS-Everywhere is an easy-to-use addon. Other things suggested in comments on Sparks’ article are also a good.

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But that’s only one part of security available in Fedora. Sparks says we should “Use SE Linux[sic].” This is an under-statement. Especially for somebody who only uses their web browser, the default SELinux settings can be significantly strengthened without affecting the user experience. That said, I’m not an expert in SELinux by any stretch… just paranoid.

The two things I always do are change certain boolean settings and change the default user context. User beware: some of these settings can’t *just* be flipped. the ‘execmem’ boolean in particular requires a few customized exceptions.

Booleans (some set this way by default):
allow_execheap –> off
allow_execmem –> off
allow_execmod –> off
allow_execstack –> off
allow_guest_exec_content –> off
allow_java_execstack –> off
allow_mplayer_execstack –> off
allow_staff_exec_content –> off
allow_sysadm_exec_content –> off
allow_user_exec_content –> off
allow_xguest_exec_content –> off
allow_xserver_execmem –> off

For instructions on changing the default SELinux user context, refer to the Fedora 13 “Security-Enhanced Linux” user guide here. Unfortunately, this document hasn’t been published since Fedora 13, but this section still applies to Fedora 16.

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And there are other things, not related to SELinux.

Disable access to the root user account in favour of using “sudo.” Set all partitions to mount with the “noexec” flag if possible. Turn off the SSH, sendmail, and potentially other services. Use LUKS disk encryption. Cryptographically (GnuPG) sign and encrypt as many emails as possible. Use secure passwords for websites (with PasswordMaker to generate them). Use the /etc/sysctl.conf file from Fedora CSI (see link below). Use the /etc/sysconfig/iptables file from Fedora CSI (see link below) BUT without the “enabled” port 22. Use ‘tune2fs’ to configure interval partition-checking and safer errors behaviour (errors in the root partition are a “panic” situation, in my mind… or at least “remount-ro”). Have a good back-up plan (I use SpiderOak because it seems more secure; see spideroak.com).

Fedora CSI (Community Services Architecture) /etc/sysctl.conf configuration here.

Fedora CSI IPtables configuration here.

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All of these are things that I do for my own computers, with slight modifications depending on exactly what I do on the particular machine, and what I use it for. Things like disk encryption and BIOS passwords are more important for portable computers (but certainly recommended for all).

I’m not suggesting these exact settings for everybody. But if they don’t, why not? What do you do instead? Why? Let’s learn!