Vodafone Mobile Connect for Ubuntu Netbooks
It's a sad fact that most of the mobile operators, in the UK at least, sell their mobile broadband solutions with no support for Linux computers, despite the popularity of this operating system on netbooks. There is one notable exception though; Vodafone, which has a research and development team dedicated to open source called Betavine and produce the Vodafone Mobile Connect (VMC) application which enables you to get more out of your mobile broadband. Despite its name, you don't have to be a Vodafone customer to use it, in fact I've been testing it out with my 3 UK account. VMC has been available for some time, but just recently an updated version has been made available and downloads created that target Ubuntu Netbook Remix and the new Dell Mini. The application will do the basics such as managing connections, but also has SMS functionality, usage information, signal strength and upload/download speed indication. If you use the e169g-switch tool currently, I've made a new version which will work with VMC.
VMC is installed from a downloaded Debian package format file available from https://forge.betavine.net/frs/?group_id=12, look for the Ubuntu Netbook Remix version (it should work in other Ubuntu variants as well). In the instructions you will notice that they are now using usb_modeswitch, like the e169g-switch package to change the mode of your mobile broadband modem. Their version of usb_modeswitch will work with VMC, but does not work with other types of connection manager like gnome-ppp without further configuration, so what I have done is amend the e169g-switch package to provide the usb_modeswitch dependency that VMC needs. I've also updated usb_modeswitch to the lastest version, and compiled it using the Asus EEE PC SDK which produces an executable program that can be used both on Xandros and Ubuntu EEE PCs (this avoids the “floating point” errors seen on some earlier versions of e169g-switch). Many thanks to Laura Dewis for helping to test the new version. On Ubuntu you can download the e169g-switch package, install it by double clicking on it and the download the vodafone-mobile-connect package and then install it the same way.
Under the “Internet” tab of Ubuntu Netbook Remix you will find the new application and the first time you run it you will have to configure your modem. It does try to autodetect it, when I tried it detected my modem as an Huawei E660 rather that an E169G, however this seemed to work for me so I did not need to change it. In the next step you will need the connection information for your mobile broadband connection, I'm sure this used to be autodetected on earlier versions of VMC (?), but now you'll need to enter this manually. A handy list of connection parameters can be found on the Ubuntu Wiki at https://wiki.ubuntu.com/NetworkManager/Hardware/3G#Provider%20info. Once configured you will be able to use the application. The functionality of the application is divided up using buttons across the top. I found that it didn't quite fit on my 800x480 screen, and I had to unmaximise it and then use the Alt+Left mouse button combination to move it around to use it. It would be great if maybe in a future version there was an option to use more compact buttons (like you can in Firefox and Thunderbird) to save a bit of screen space.
Connect, Mail and Internet
The “ Connect “ button works as expected, the same button toggles a connection on and off and when you are successfully connected you will see the section at the bottom of the application updates to show you the up and dowload speed as well as continuing to show the signal strength. The “Mail” button simply launches your preferred email application and the “Internet” button your preferred browser, which will take you to the VMC project page by default.
A big bonus of VMC is probably the ability to send and receive short text messages (SMS) from your Netbook, particularly if you find texting from a mobile phone a bit of a frustrating or slow experience (admittedly it might just be my lack of skill when texting). VMC supports sending and receiving text messages, it also picked up the correct SMS message centre number (needed to route the message properly) from the device itself. However when I initially used this I found I could send messages but not view the message inbox (it appeared blank). So it was time to dig a bit, the VMC package includes a debug version which you can run from the command line with “ vodafone-mobile-connect-card-driver-for-linux-debug”, this will output lots of extra information as the program runs to help you diagnose problems. Running this I noticed it was complaining about a MalformedSMSException and above this message was a great big line with a lot of numbers and hex in it. However the first eleven characters of this looked like a phone number, I noticed this was repeated a couple of times as well. This seems to be a bug that has been reported a couple of times, so I unplugged the mobile broadband modem and plugged it into a Windows machine (as that is what the original 3 software runs on). There I noticed there was an SMS from 3 thanking me for choosing ebilling. I deleted this, plugged the unit back into the EEE and then then Inbox worked! Not sure why this happened, I'm guessing it might have something to do with the SMS being one generated by a system, perhaps it is not creating it correctly.
A lot of mobile broadband packages are sold with a usage limit per month, and it can get expensive if you exceed your allocated limit. A handy feature of VMC is the “Usage” functionality, which you can enter your monthly limit (though Tools → Preferences → Usage) and it will give you some indicative figures and a graph of usage for the current and previous months. This of course works best if you just use your mobile broadband with one machine, but does give you an easy way to get an idea of usage without having to log into your provider's website.
I think that VMC is a very useful bit of software and can help you get a more complete experience of mobile broadband. I've swapped emails with a couple of members of the Betavine team and get the impression that they are deeply committed to supporting open source and hold the opinion that the future for Linux in the mobile world is very bright. Large organisations struggle to understand and support open source sometimes, but often the situation is not a simple as an organisation being for or against open source, instead it can be an ongoing process of internal debate, persuasion and education. It's very positive that Vodafone have such a team to help them succeed in the open source world and understand this debate fully. VMC is just one of their projects, Betavine also serves as a community for mobile application developers and their portal is well worth checking out, it can be found at: http://www.betavine.net/bvportal/home.html.