Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Rebooting Linux at 34,000'

I’ve spent a lot of time on Continental Airlines planes the past week, going to and from a conference on platforms held in London. It was my first time flying Continental ever, and on the whole I was pleasantly surprised as they offer the amenities that were once standard among US carriers until commodization meant that the major trunk airlines started treating customers as inconvenient nusiances.

Tuesday afternoon I spent 10 hours crossing six timezones in a steel tube operated by CO that (according to my seatpocket) was a Boeing 777-200.

At one point while trying to play my favorite 20th century choral mass on the seatback entertainment system, it decided to reboot, spewing Linux kernel text messages on the LCD screen.

While I couldn’t take a screen dump of the messages, it was pretty easy to see that I was watching RedBoot (tm) from Red Hat Software — a build of November 19, 2004 — for a system called “MAS eFX.” A little web surfing after we landed makes it clear that the MAS stands for Matsushita Avionics Systems, and that eFX is known to the embedded community.

That a seatback system would use embedded Linux was no surprise; that it would take 4-5 minutes to reboot was a bit more unexpected. That it would spew messages such as “loading XX will taint the kernel” — whether due to a “proprietary license” or “no license” — is an obvious attempt by the GPLniks to discourage the use of non-GPL modules when running Linux.

But why should an airline passenger sitting in seat 20L care? Why is this message (or any of the other messages) being displayed at 34,000'? This is user hostile design — and, in fact, not the only part of this system that would qualify.

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