Quiet Linux revolution through mobile computing

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Once a week, an article about the imminent broad endorsement of GNU/Linux by consumers is being published. Desktop Linux never seemed to pick up however, at least in a noticeable manner, because all the predictions have gotten it wrong: it didn’t become mainstream overnight, but it is doing so through a quiet revolution in mobile computing.

GNU/Linux as an operating system is younger than the Microsoft Windows family, yet it lies on 40 years-old foundations, when a group of AT&T employees at Bell Labs developed UNIX. With the exception of NeXT-based Mac OSX, all UNIX-like operating systems have traditionally been designed by geeks for geeks; and that has proven to be a real turn off for computer-illiterate users.

My academic training is mostly literary and mechanical, so when I decided to run my personal computer with Open Source software in 2001, Linux was still that geek-oriented operating system. I began using open-source applications like the GIMP and Mozilla on Windows to be familiar with them on Linux afterhand. Other application were not as smooth or complete as their proprietary equivalent and some of my peripherals could simply be trashed because of the lack of drivers; but this was a concession I was willing to make for the sake of open source.

Over the decade however, desktop Linux has evolved: the user interface and applications have matured and many a peripheral now work. Used on top of a Kubuntu or PC-BSD core system, the Qt-built KDE graphical desktop environment provides a lavish and intuitive interface grandma will like, with nothing to envy to OS X or Vista, needless to mention the NSA-enhanced security.

KDE screenshot

Over the years I have learned to run basic command lines following simple forum tutorials, and it turns out to be as easy as installing a driver on Windows – whenever such a thing could be considered both easy and successfull. The NSA runs Linux, a strong indication that the system is both secure and flexible, and it has very frequent upgrades precisely because of its geek roots and Open Source nature. This maturity reached by the system is probably why writers like to predict imminent mass endorsement. Dell and Lenovo do publish press releases about endorsing the operating system, but they are coy about featuring it on their Web site.

Embedded Linux: the quiet revolution

The requirements for broader endorsement of Desktop Linux seem to have been met around summer 2007, when computer makers released the first low-cost laptops. In France, sales of laptops have risen by 31%, and 61% of consumers now prefer a laptop over a desktop computer. Computing hardware is increasingly powerful and cheaper (as predicted by Moore’s law) yet proprietary operating systems and applications require more power and licence fees with each new release. In order to get rid of such costs, computer maker Asus decided to try and put to contribution the intellectual property freely make available by Open Source. Using Xandros Linux, they managed to keep the basic version below US$ 200 and tapped into the emerging market niche of the sub-notebooks: computers powerful enough for doing mundane things (surf the Internet, send and receive email, write text, play media); yet cheap enough to be within financial reach of the masses. Several makers are now releasing similar sub-notebooks.

In the field of mobile computing, leaders have grasped that Open Source could be economically sustainable: Google Inc., which portal processes 60% of searches on the Internet, has bet on Linux for its much anticipated mobile phone.

Embedded Linux is proving to be strategic in the fastest-growing market of consumer electronics: portable media players, satellite navigation systems and smartphone all used to involve software licencing costs that can now be trimmed thanks to Open Source. Ailing Motorola Inc. released several Linux phones this year and two major embedded Linux advocates have merged, creating a new contender to Google’s Android. Nokia Corporation, holding an estimated 60% of the mobile phone marked, recently announced that it would buy and release the code of Symbian, the operating system running its smart phones, perhaps in an attempt to thwart the foothold of Linux in mobile telephony.

In conclusion

Linux seems to be heading towards broad endorsement, not on desktop computers as expected, but through cheaper mobile devices. The good thing is that Open Source has gained some serious credibility amongst the players but the main concern remains the lack of interoperability between different implementation of the operating system. Linux is very much fragmented on desktop computers, although a few versions seem to be emerging on the top. Let us hope that the same kind of natural law of selection will happen to its embedded version as well.