Pogoplug, PlugApps & Open Source

Despite the raging controversy over the color of the Pogoplug, there is actually another issue which impacts users and possible Pogoplug users. First some quick background.  I’m going to keep this at a very high level both because even if I wanted to go deep, I don’t have the knowledge and because I want to get to the point quickly.  If you want more detail, please follow the provided links.

The current crop of plug computers run various flavors of Linux.  The two I looked at closely are the Tonidoplug which runs ubuntu Linux, while the Pogoplug runs an open source version of Linux.   The beauty of Linux is it’s basically free and has a huge breadth of development activity behind it much of which is also free.  One of the reasons for the huge amount of development is the open source nature of the software.  Anyone can see, modify and enhance the code, within reason.  When the plug computers started appearing, not far behind were the developers looking for another platform for their work.

Plug computers are especially good candidates for third party development because the plug vendors provide bare bones versions of Linux.   This is done to keep costs down and allow the vendors to focus on their key value proposition.  That brings us to my (current) plug of choice, the Pogoplug and the key third party development group, PlugApps.  PlugApps provide applications for many plug computers including TonidoPlug, SheevaPlug, and Pogoplug, at least until last week.

Keeping at a very high level, PlugApps works by loading a “pieces” of Linux on a USB drive attached to the plug.  This allows the plug to boot from the USB drive.  The applications are then also loaded on the USB drive.  All three plugs, except Pogoplug, provide for a simple (read open source) way to boot the new version of Linux allowing simple access to the applications.  Apparently Pogoplug (I say apparently as I have not seen an official response from Pogoplug) does not allow a simple way to boot from a USB drive.  This makes the job for PlugApps more difficult not to mention tricky and possibly destructive for the users.  Further, it appears the source code used by the Pogoplug during the boot process is not available which is inconsistent with the open source approach.

As a result PlugApps has stopped supporting the Pogoplug and users who had been relying on them for applications are left high and dry. Plus potential users, such as myself, are left without options for application like those from PlugApps.  Specifically, I was hoping to install Samba (a way of easily reaching drives attached to the plug from other computers).  Other application which I had an interest in were basic web server capabilities and an application from Squeezebox which allows streaming of audio.  Note – none of the previous application were written by PlugApps, but they were modified to allow them to run on a plug computer.

So where does that leave me?  Pogoplug does exactly what it says it does and so far I’m satisfied that it does it well.  While Samba would solve an annoying problem with my drive letters magically bouncing around, the world will not end without it.  But general principle applies here and I’ll quote myself from the Pogoplug forum:

I mentioned PlugApps mostly because they are the ones I was aware of, but I really don’t care who the third parties are, the more the merrier. …This is specifically for asking Pogoplug to open up and support, if not embrace, third party development.

I need to add that the direction and vision of any company should be based at least partly on customer feedback.  Truly visionary companies can anticipate customer demand, but for those mere mortal companies, they are best served by considering current customer feedback.  The quote of mine I listed above comes from a thread I started on the Pogoplug forum asking other Pogoplug customers their thoughts on the topic at hand.  While it’s been only 3 days and the forum doesn’t see a lot of traffic, to date I’ve only received one response, one from a PlugApps person.  Assuming the lack of response reflects the voice of the customer, perhaps Pogoplug has made the correct decision.

The good news, the very good news is the plugs are relatively cheap so for me, I plan on keeping my Pogoplug and dedicate for what it does really well which is backup my stuff.  As I decide to expand my use of plug computing, I’ll look for other vendors and make my decision based on how they position their product and how it matches with my requirements.

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